What a great team feels like

A good friend and valued colleague N left our team last week. He started soon after me and completely changed the dynamic within the team; we’re reaching the end of the project and all soon to be going our separate ways anyway, but the impact he made will stay with me for a long time.
 
One of the best things about our team was the differences in outlook, personality and approach we each brought to the table. We had developers working from Slovenia, Portugal, Spain, and remotely in the UK as well as co-located in the office, and forged strong working relationships in this distributed group; everyone with different strengths and backgrounds, but all sharing a passionate belief in doing things well and making the team better.
 
I’ve been a web developer for 20 years this year. I’ve worked on my own for a lot of that time, and similarly since moving to Ruby and Rails in 2013. One of the things that attracted me to Ruby in the first place was the community and the sense of diversity and acceptance that runs through it. “Keep Ruby Weird” is still alive, I think. And there’s something different and special about developers that choose to work with Ruby and Rails; every language and framework exists for a reason and those reasons resonate with us on a deep personal level. That’s why I think distinctive communities form around them.
 
Previously, even though I’ve been working in agile teams for the last 13 years, I’ve really been working alone in my own silo most of the time. This project was my first time working fully as part of a modern Rails team, to collaborate with other developers using Github, to learn to test all the time, to be pushed out of my comfort zone and learn how to do things better. 
 
I hoped this would be the case before I started, and it has. But what I didn’t expect – and what has been by far the most important part of the experience here – was this supportive culture that unfolded from N’s first day; that of helping each other, of every problem being a problem shared. The atmosphere before I joined was pretty toxic. Nobody spoke, nobody shared anything. There was just the sound of one of the senior developers sniggering as he reviewed PRs with acid little comments. 
 
And then N came along… “Share your screen with me”
 
How often we heard those words from him when one of us was stuck, and it always meant things were about to get better. Whether or not the problem got fixed in the end, we’d explore it and learn more about the codebase and the problem together. People who weren’t so good at testing would learn how tests can help us explore what’s going on, illuminating the problem and leading us to the answer. 
 
Everything changed the day N joined, and I think we’ve built a better team largely because of him. This isn’t a great team yet. But it could be and thanks to him and the other excellent developers who have since joined, we had a real glimpse of what one looks like.
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Great talk on code review

Working with some terrific developers at Kajima for the last few months has helped me to learn loads; it’s been great working in a big Rails team for the first time since moving to Ruby from PHP back in 2013, and one of the biggest changes to working alone on projects is having a peer review process for code before it gets merged to master.

As a developer, you always have this imaginary monkey on your shoulder anyway, whispering to you every time you cut corners. “That’s not what you’re supposed to do…”

Working in a team, that imaginary monkey is replaced by real, warm-blooded human beings and the whispering is replaced by written comments on Github pull requests – suddenly you’re held to account for your decisions and working to meet a commonly agreed bar for what good, acceptable code looks like.

One of my colleagues shared this great talk from Railsconf 2015, well worth watching:

Here are my notes:

We think that code review is for catching bugs – but really it’s not. Few bugs are caught this way, but we are all under the impression it catches more. Nope!
It’s for helping us to get better every day.
Of course, a few bugs get caught, but the real benefits include:
  • Knowledge transfer
  • Increased team awareness
  • Finding alternative solutions
The discipline of discussing code with your peers – the process is more important than the net outcome of the results or changes in the code
Improving the technical communication on your team
Strong code review culture isn’t seniors explaining things to juniors, it has to be a real conversation
Some rules from Thoughtbot
Two key things
1. As an author…provide sufficient context
  • “If content is king then context is god”? Content is the diff. Context is WHY that changed. What’s the problem your changes solve? Insufficient context is one of the chief impediments to good reviewing. So… commit messages that say WHAT are no good, must explain WHY these lines changed or were added. A link to Jira is not an explanation! Don’t make the reviewer hunt for this context. Also, the thing on the end of the link probably doesn’t explain the context for the change directly.
  • Challenge – at least two paragraphs of context for every change you make!
2. As a reviewer… ask questions rather than making demands
  • ask, don’t tell
  • Negativity bias in written communication compared to verbal. Inflection compensates far more than we realise, the absence needs to be supplied in writing. Saying the same words in writing that you’d say will be interpreted harshly or critically.
  • Engage in conversation, don’t dictate what to do. Avoid imperatives
  • Leads to ignoring or arguing (ignoring is worse). Give the author credit for having considered your suggestion and assume best intentions. Frame it as a question! “What about xxxx?”
  • Aim is to foster technical discussion
  • “What do you think about…?”
  • “Did you consider…?”
  • “Can you clarify…?”
Imperatives are particularly harmful when difference in level – juniors will ALWAYS do what seniors tell them but rarely understand why
AVOID
  • Why didn’t you just …? (Just is a bad word)
  • Why didn’t you… ? Still puts on defensive, frames negatively (prefer “How about” instead of “why not”)
Socratic method – ask questions to stimulate critical thinking and illuminate potential alternatives
How to handle conflict?
Conflict is good, healthy debate drives quality and leads to learning. But two types
Good – we don’t agree on an issue
Once you reach a minimum bar of quality, we’re now talking about tradeoffs. “Not the way I’d do it” is not in itself a reason to change things.
What if we don’t agree on the process (committing to master, ignoring feedback etc) Get ahead of this by establishing the social contract that everyone is agreed with
You can review any code any time, just because it got committed doesn’t mean there’s no value to reviewing it.
What to review – if I’m not catching bugs, what am I doing this for?
Timing – ten minutes is a long time to spend on a review. Small changes are easier to review
  • Single responsibility principle – does every object have just one job
  • Naming things
  • Complexity
  • Test coverage
  • Web security
  • Style (but style nitpicks lead to reviewers being perceived negatively!)
But it’s fine for people to review in their own way, bringing their own strengths
“So and so approved it” not doing QA
Adopt a style guide to remove potential for pointless arguments and use Rubocop. If all code passes linting then there will be a lot fewer style comments.
Insist on high quality reviews, but agree to disagree.
Review what’s important to you
Aim to have a strong code review culture – valuable in itself.
Benefits
  • Better code
  • Better developers
  • Team ownership – this is _our_ code
  • Healthy debate (not silent seething)
The fact reviews are asynchronous may be a benefit; means the PR and diffs have to stand on their own.

YCombinator!

Really thrilled that Hireist has been accepted onto YCombinator’s Startup School’s autumn cohort. It’s a sort of online startup incubator, free, online. Last year around 13,000 companies applied. Everyone who applies gets to watch the lectures free, but there’s a selection part where around one in five startups gets accepted onto a group of about thirty companies/founders to be mentored by one of about a hundred YC alumni. And that’s what we’ve gotten onto.

So it’s not particularly exclusive – we’re probably one of about 3,000 companies in the mentoring groups this time round. But it’s not a poke in the eye, either!

As a graduate of Bethnal Green Ventures startup incubator, it’s not like the startup world is alien to me. But YC has a deserved reputation; there are talks from Sam Altman and none other than Paul Graham himself. So, I’m delighted we got into the mentoring groups and although there’s not much chance of scoring the $10,000 they’re awarding to a hundred of the startups, getting this sort of content and guidance is awesome.

First lecture today… can’t wait!

Fixing order dependent tests in Minitest

Working on Hireist.com, a Rails 5 app which uses Minitest and Capybara, I ended up with some order dependent test failures that completely derailed things for a few days. In the end my brilliant son helped me to solve the problem and hopefully the key points will help someone else!

So, the app is a SaaS product and uses subdomains to separate tenant accounts. When the failure occurred, it was because the @current_account was unset in situations where it should have been and we ended up calling methods on nil. Those tests worked fine on their own, but during the whole test run, something was happening to make it mess up; some state or unsuspected dependency leaking from a previous test.

So I remembered Ryan Davis talking about this in his talk during RailsConf 2015, and how you could use minitest-bisect to do the leg work of trying to narrow down which other tests caused this dependency and failure. So, here were the steps I went through over the course of several days in order to get a test suite we could trust once again!

Step 1 – realise you have a problem!

This bit is easy. If your test suite runs green on one run, then throws up lots of red on a second when there have been no changes to the code, you have an order dependent test failure.

Step 2 – identify the test dependencies

Install minitest-bisect in your gem file in the development group and run your tests. Here’s the first gotcha, however. The readme and instructions are for a generic Ruby app; if you’re using Rails, you need to pass it the right file names to act on and finding the right incantation took a little googling!

minitest_bisect --seed 45514 -Itest $(find test -type f -name \*_test.rb)

Run this in terminal in the app directory, replacing the above seed with the value from your own unsuccessful test run.

This should take a few minutes to run, and will gradually narrow down the set of files and an order to run them in which generate the failure.

Eventually you should get something like

...many things...

Final reproduction:

Run options: --seed 45514 -n "/^(?:Create account Feature Test#(?:test_0001_Load the right home page)|Manage::JobsControllerTest#(?:test_should_create_new_job|test_should_get_index))$/"

Now you can pass the options displayed to the test runner and reproduce the subset of the problem.

Step 3- Identify the conditions which cause the failure

Steps 1 and 2 are, sadly, the easy bit. The tricky bit is then working out what is happening and what to do about it! But at least now you have a workable surface area to attack. In this case, just in case anyone else hits this slightly unusual edge case, our app uses the ActsAsTenant gem and requires a subdomain for particular areas to work properly, so we use a setup method with the host! method to set it before the tests that need this.

def setup
  host! "verso.example.com"
end

But the problem was that if prior to those test files running, a feature test was run that used “visit xxx_path”, the host! method in later tests no longer had any effect because the URL had already been set.

feature "View home page" do
  scenario "generic home page" do
    visit root_path
    page.must_have_content "Hireist"
  end
  scenario "home page for account" do
    visit "http://verso.hireist.test"
    page.must_have_content "Verso"
  end
end

Step 4 – Work out the dependency and fix it!

This is where I hit a brick wall, and my son, a talented Ruby developer, stepped in to help. It took some time but eventually using byebug and pry we were able to step through the code and dig down into the framework to try to find out where the domain was being set and why it leaked across test instances. We found that when a feature test runs, it set the default_url_options to “test.local” and this got set in a class variable – hence the persistence across test runs.

Because our integration test had the relevant classes in its ancestry chain, it turned out we could access the options hash inside our tests and reset the URL options before our test runs, so that the host! method would always have the desired effect.

In our test_helper.rb:

def clean_url_environment
  app.routes.default_url_options = {}
end

And in our setup method in the controller tests:

def setup
  clean_url_environment
  host! "verso.example.com"
end

This was a tough one to fix, and it took sustained effort and more than one pair of eyes to do it. But without the ability to bisect the test runs (thanks to Ryan Davis), we’d probably never have gotten to the root cause.

How many boy scouts?

Sometimes we find ourselves working on stuff that is less than scintillating, maybe discussing the implementation details of yet another pointless cookie notification bar or whether it would be a bad thing to implement one of those things that highlights random words on your site like “gambling” and pops up ads if you accidentally mouse over them [yes! – Ed.]; at such times it’s sometimes tempting to dream you were instead working in Silicon Valley on some ground-breaking project like self-driving cars.

I have an antidote for that though; suppose you really were working on the software that guides a self-driving car. That would be awesome, right? Even the worst implementation of an AI-controlled vehicle is soon likely to be many times safer for the passengers and the world at large than even the best human driver, and there are really smart people working on the problems right now.

I’ve been reading this amazing essay from Paul Ford, “What is Code?”, and in it he explains why if those rockstar ninja developers exist, they’re probably going to have pretty high standards as to what problems they work on and are therefore probably not going to be sitting in the next cubicle in a typical dev team.

They’re not interviewing at your crappy company for your crappy job. They’re not going to come and rescue your website; they’re not going to make you an app that puts mustaches on photos; they’re not going to listen to you when you offer them the chance to build the next Facebook, because, if they exist, they are busy building the real Facebook.

Very astute, right? But it was this next sentence that made me glad I’m not one of them.

Sometimes they’re thinking about higher mathematics, or how to help a self-driving car manage the ethical choice between running over a squirrel and driving off a cliff. Or they’re riding their bikes, or getting really into pottery.

If you’re the one designing the anti-collision software, you’re the one who has to tell it how to decide in emergency situations. So the squirrel case is pretty easy (once you train it to reliably differentiate between a child in a furry hat and a squirrel, but that’s another matter) – bye bye Mr Squeaks, right?

But how would you suggest to your automaton that it handle the sort of situation that psychologists use to bother otherwise happy people; like, assuming that its brakes have failed and it’s hurtling down a hill, able to steer but not stop, and it has to choose the lesser of two evils.

Do you suggest it should stay on the road and aim, for instance, at the mother and a child in a pushchair on the pedestrian crossing (two people with their lives ahead of them), or steer into the bus queue of twenty older people instead?

But what if there are boy scouts in the bus queue too?

If you’re a rockstar programmer and your next question is, “how many boy scouts?” there may be a job for you in Mountain View. Tell them I suggested you give them a call.

Now, what colour would you like your cookie notification bar, Mr Smithers?

Being user 137 on StackOverflow

It’s funny how SO has become such a big part of our lives as developers.

It’s doubly fascinating for me, because I was there at the birth. Back in 2007 I followed Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky’s blogs eagerly; Spolsky, of course, had been an influential tech blogger for many years and reached massive fame for three things; firstly, his company Fog Creek’s popular bug tracker Fogbugz, which many dev teams used routinely. Secondly, Fog Creek’s innovative approach to programmer happiness, like ensuring that every developer had their own office with a door that closes! And thirdly, for the Joel Test, still widely used as a quick objective metric of the quality of a developer team and their processes.

And Atwood? Atwood was always a delightful read; opinionated and funny, and self-deprecating in a way I wish more developers were. His Coding Horror logo, used by permission from Steve McConnell of Code Complete fame, reminds everyone that there is bad code everywhere and much of it is our own; but now we know and try to do better!

So when these two towering figures in the community joined forces and announced they were going to collaborate on a project, of course my ears pricked up. The best thing was, they were going to podcast their weekly project update meetings, since Joel lived in New York and Jeff in California.

Jeff was doing the hands-on work, and for the first few months of the podcast it was hilarious how his estimating (“Oh, 12 to 13 weeks I expect”) style grated with Joel. Of course it took way longer than Jeff thought, but the best bit was seeing the vision unfold; the StackOverflow we see today is not that much changed from how it was after the first six months of work, and we got to experience the decision making process first hand, understanding exactly what lay behind every design decision.

And of course, they were very, very funny to listen to.

When Jeff sent out the first invitations to the Beta, I immediately signed onto the waiting list. And a couple of days later, I got my invite. It felt really special, being one of this elite group of developers from all different disciplines – all collaborating on something to benefit every developer for ever.

So I’m user 137 on StackOverflow. They’re up to over five million now and rising. In the beginning we didn’t have the rules for good questions we have now; we discovered the later rules out of how people used the product and in particular, through Jeff’s excellent judgement about what was beneficial and what was not. We found out pretty early on that questions that solicited lists or subjective judgements were harmful and now such questions are rightly discouraged as low-brow attempts at rep-whoring.

But in the earliest days, I had one goal in mind: to get editing rights, so I could help to improve the questions I saw that needed it and help to curate and preserve this vital body of developer knowledge. And that meant I needed 3,000 reputation, and I did everything I could to earn it while still asking questions that I thought were useful to people.

It took me a while to get there but in a few months I had achieved a reasonable level of editing power and I was content. Real work took me all my time and as thousands of developers began to compete to post the best, quickest answers my useful participations quickly tailed off.

But over the years, those questions from the early days still continue to earn me reputation despite my relative inactivity on the platform. My rep is over 13,000 and it’s all from questions that would never be allowed now. But I’m kind of glad they’re there – they’re part of the social anthropology of the web, and even if they aren’t good questions, every week they’re upvoted by people who don’t know any better but still value them.

So it’s kind of tough now being user 137 – I feel a bit of a fraud because my rep comes from early experiments and earnest rep-whoring of the most well-meaning sort. But I’d never give it up.

Where to put POROs in Rails apps

So, I’ve got this conundrum.

The more I learn about OO design (a journey which started in 2007, mind you!), the more I want to apply what I know about good design in my daily work. But it’s hard, being the sole developer building an MVP for a startup where every second counts. There’s an increasing cognitive dissonance between what I know I want to do, like unit testing, tdd, building small POROs for business logic and so on just like Sandi Metz and Avdi Grimm encourage us to do, and what Rails encourages through its file structure and what I end up doing in practice, which is just throwing another method into the User or CourseModule class and getting the feature out the door.

The conundrum is pretty simple; the Rails way doesn’t of itself lead you to write good code, it encourages you to think about everything within its structure, and doesn’t make obvious places for your own classes outside of Controllers and Models. I want to extract stuff out into single responsibility classes, but if I do that, what about Rails? Rails is the reason I’m using Ruby, after all; I want the productivity and programmer joy that comes from using it. But I also want to develop the craft of software design.

So I was overjoyed to come across this blog post by Vladimir Rybas on just this topic. Here he quickly outlines the problem and describes a few current approaches, most of which just don’t feel rails-y – and more importantly, mean you end up creating a completely custom file structure which makes it really hard to predict where stuff is going to be. That’s one of the joys of Rails, that pretty much everything has a home and that it’s consistent from Rails app to Rails app. It’s such a small but important thing to give up.

It’s his fourth one which hit the spot for me – using namespaces and subdirectories within the existing default Rails directory structure. Here’s a quick summary, but do read his post and his rationale, it’s great.

Here’s one of his examples which shows it in action

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  include Lockable
  include Settings

  def can_follow?(user)
    FollowingPolicy.new(self, user).can_follow?
  end
end

This is where the files actually live

models
├── user
│ └── following_policy.rb
│ └── lockable.rb
│ └── settings.rb
└── user.rb

And this is the code in each of the files

# app/models/user/lockable.rb
module User::Lockable
  def lock_access!
    update(locked_at: Time.now)
    UserMailer.account_locked_email(self).deliver
  end

  # ...
end

# app/models/user/settings.rb
module User::Settings
  extend ActiveSupport::Concern

  included do
    store_accessor :settings
  end

  # ...
end

# app/models/user/following_policy.rb
class User::FollowingPolicy
  attr_reader :current_user, :other_user, :account_verification

  def initialize(current_user, other_user)
    @current_user = current_user
    @other_user = other_user
    @account_verification = current_user.account_verification
  end

  # ...
end

SOLID object oriented design

It’s been a few months now since I first came across Sandi Metz and the Poodr. Ever since then I’ve been hunting down her conference videos.

If you’ve not come across her and you are a programmer, you really should take some time to watch her stuff. She did the best video on testing I’ve ever seen.

But this is her first talk, at Gotham Ruby Conference in 2009, and for some reason I’d never come across it till now! I’m linking all this stuff up to make it easier to find and to remind me to keep plugging away at understanding and applying it.

One stylesheet to rule them all

Very excited to finally think of searching for the browser default style sheet, and here it is:

http://trac.webkit.org/browser/trunk/Source/WebCore/css/html.css

For example:

p {
43 display: block;
44 -webkit-margin-before: 1__qem;
45 -webkit-margin-after: 1__qem;
46 -webkit-margin-start: 0;
47 -webkit-margin-end: 0;
48 }

Turns out a qem here is a “quirks mode em” (Thanks to http://stackoverflow.com/questions/7448673/what-does-1-qem-mean)