Todd Hoff's picture

Secret Teachings: The Programmer's One Inch Death Punch

How do programmer's get better at their job? Few programmers think of programming as a true profession. For most it's just a job. They go to work, do what's asked, and go home. They don't read. They don't attend conferences. They don't train. In fact, the training business for software is pretty much dead and has been for years.

Other professions have different attitudes. Professional athletes train constantly to improve their skills. Even doctors and accountants have stringent continuing education requirements so they stay current.

What can we programmers do? Let's first look at how expert performers are created in the first place. That might help us figure out how we can become better. Time in an article called The Science of Experience has a lot of potentially fruitful ideas:

  • The number of years of experience in a domain is a poor predictor of attained performance.
  • Rather than mere experience or even raw talent, it is dedicated, slogging, generally solitary exertion, repeatedly practicing the most difficult physical tasks for an athlete, repeatedly performing new and highly intricate computations for a mathematician, that leads to first-rate performance. And it should never get easier; if it does, you are coasting, not improving.
  • They key is "deliberate practice," by which is meant the kind of practice we hate, the kind that leads to failure and hair-pulling and fist-pounding. You like the Tuesday New York Times crossword? You have to tackle the Saturday one to be really good.
  • Great performance comes mostly from deliberate practice but also from another activity: regularly obtaining accurate feedback.
  • Experts tend to be good at their particular talent, but when something unpredictable happens, something that changes the rules of the game they usually play, they're little better than the rest of us.
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    Small Screens Lead to Small Worlds Where Most of Us are Left Out

    In On a Small Screen, Just the Salient Stuff they make an interesting observation that web browsing on an iPhone can actually be superior to its big screen cousins:

    A quick trip to Web sites like Facebook, Twitter, Zillow or Powerset, all of which have been redesigned to take advantage of the iPhone, makes it clear that bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to exploring cyberspace. By stripping down the Web site interface to the most basic functions, site designers can focus the user�s attention and offer relevant information without distractions.

    This sounds great at first. Dump clutter. Get me just what you think I need. Be ruthless. Edit the world for me. The problem is you know what will show up fist are the most popular and profitable items. So in aggregate we end up seeing much less of the world that we would on a big screen . It's the small world phenomena where new nodes are more likely to attach themselves to existing popular node and we'll see that same power law type friend and follower figures we see on Twitter, Facebook, and FriendFeed. A few people have many 1000s of followers. Most have close to none. And the world is far smaller than it would have otherwise been because it is being viewed thrugh a small screen. To control information flows you'll just need to control the first small screen full of information because like for Google search results, few people venture past the first page.

    So small iPhone screens mean the rest of us are banished even further out in the long tail galapagos.

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    Morning Scrum Meetings are Like the American Family Dinner

    In the US family sit-down dinners are a cherished tradition. Many Americans have fond and powerful memories of sitting down around table with their family at night and eating together. I realize other cultures have very different dinner traditions, but I was struck how much like a family dinner is the morning scrum meeting.

    In a family dinner there is a sense of community. You are surrounded by people who support you, who are there for you, and who will help you when times turn tough. During the day you battle the world and then you come home to the comfort of the family circle that is the dinner table. You gather together. It's a time to talk to each other, reconnect, and figure out how everyone is doing. Every gathering is a ritual act of building community.

    Scrum meetings create a very similar sense of family and community. Without a regular meeting we are just individuals carrying out tasks like machines. It's being part of a team that helps elevate work to life.

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    Efficient Team Interaction Protocol: ACK Three Times for Every NAK (The Rule of Three)

    Which interaction in a design meeting do you think will turn out the best results?

    Scenario 1:
    Alpha Geek A: That is the stupidest idea I've ever seen. Only an idiot could think up that idea.
    Alpha Geek B: What you do mean? It worked on my other projects and it's based on proven patterns.
    Alpha Geek A: This project is much more demanding. It has to scale infinitely and cost nothing to deploy.
    My new O(1) algorithm for distributed miracle working will do that no problem.
    Alpha Geek B: The only scales you could find are on you highly squamata like epidermis. My
    framework, though it will take 2 years to develop, will enable us to easily change
    our design without changing code.

    Scenario 2:
    Alpha Geek A: That is the stupidest idea I've ever seen. Only an idiot could think up that idea.
    Hub : A, your new algorithm is very creative. It looks like we'll be able to scale
    easily with a lot less effort than we do now. Testing will be easier too.
    But B has some good point about how difficult it will be to make changes
    fast in the field. What in particular don't you like about B's idea and
    why don't you cover again what particular goals you are trying to
    Alpha Geek B : Wait, I see A's point. Let's call up Maven A. I think we can work
    out how to get the best of both worlds.

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    All the world is a DOM. The rise of Identity Based Programming.

    In the past few years we've seen a huge rise of successful systems built following a Document Object Model (DOM) type of architecture. By that I mean: open systematized models of complex domains that are easy for applications to specialize and extend in a cooperative manner.

    This approach has quickly taken over the tradition libary + statically compiled language paradigm in amazing products like Eclipse, Aspect Oriented Programming (AOP), DOM + Javascript + DHTML, and in Content Management Systems (CMSs) like Drupal.

    While we must pay homage to Smalltalk for its unified image based development environment, the most familiar example of the DOM architecture runs inside your favorite browser, using the dynamic trio of DOM + Javascript + DHTML.

    The olden days of interface writing is represented by the applet. You combine all your libraries into a single application and download it to an interpreter. This is basically the same as compiling to an image and running the resulting executable on your favorite OS.

    Look how different is your browser's DOM based approach. The DOM provides a really rich and functional model of a document, your web browser, which is made available to all applications running in your browser. Multiple libraries can be directly loaded into the browser and build on layers of each others functionality. Applications can add new methods, events, and properties directly to the model. And powerful meta tools like jQuery are creatable because of the dynamic power and regularity the browser environment provides.

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    If You See the Buddha in Your Scrum, Say Hi

    Around 2,500 years ago the Buddha may have created one of the first and longest lasting intentional communities, that when looked at in a certain light, looks an awful lot like a modern agile organization.

    In Karen Armstrong's excellent book, Buddha, we learn soon after the Buddha became enlightened a rich merchant gave him some land and built a few huts so the Buddha and his followers could make a permanent camp. This organization was called a Sangha and was the forerunner of the Buddhist monasteries we see today. Until this time the Buddha and his followers were always on the road and took shelter wherever they could when the monsoon season rained in. Few would travel on the monsoon muddied roads so the Sangha became a place where Buddha and his followers could wait out the monsoons and continue their studies. Soon Sanghas were being created everywhere as appreciative students donated land to the Buddha's cause.

    Whenever you get people together you need rules of governance. How should people interact? Who should be in charge? What are the duties and obligations of someone who has joined? What are the Buddha's answers to these questions?

    I was surprised. The Buddha advocated decentralized administration and individual authority and responsibility. Since Buddhism is based on taking personal responsibility for finding ones own enlightenment, this organization makes sense, but for some reason I thought he would be more of a waterfall guy than an agile guy.

    Todd Hoff's picture

    Can Game Theory be Used to Loosen Website API Limits?

    Let's say Twitter limits me to getting only 20 tweets at a time through their API. But I want more. I may even want to do something so radical as download everything. Of course Twitter can't let everyone do that. They would be swamped serving all this traffic and service would be denied. So Twitter does that rational thing and limits API access as a means of self protection. As does google, yahoo, and everyone else.

    But when I hit the limit I think, but hey it's Todd here, we've been friends a long time and I've never abused you. Can't you just trust me a little? I promise not to hurt you. I never have and won't in the future. At least on purpose, accidents do happen. The problem is Twitter doesn't know me so we haven't built up trust. We could replace trust with money, as in a paid service where I pay for each batch of downloads, but we're better friends than that. Money shouldn't come between us.

    And if Twitter knew what a good guy I was I feel sure they would let me download more data. But Twitter doesn't know me and that's the problem. How could they know me? We could set up authority based systems like the ones that let certain people through the airport security lines fast, but that won't scale and I have feeling we all know how that strategy will work out.

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    The Golden Spike Pattern

    J Wynia wrote an interesting post It's Time to Decouple Your Development Process where he talks about one of the most useful patterns a group of developers can use, it's a pattern I know as the Golden Spike Pattern. The name comes from the 1869 ceremony that drove the final spike completing the transcontinental railroad in the US. The railroad linked the eastern US with the western US, finally meeting up at Promontory in Utah. Constructing a transcontinental railroad is a complex time consuming business. They made it work by researching a general route for the railroad, acquiring the necessary property, and then having two sides building their parts of the railroad independently,

    The metaphor behind the pattern name isn't subtle. The idea is groups don't have to be in lock step dependency to create a complex system. All they need is a general plan and an agreement of where to meet up. In software a meet can be an API, schema, library, protocol, or a test suite. Once that meet up point is established all the different sides can go about there business without interdependencies. From a lean manufacturing point-of-view this is a powerful way of increasing overall system flow because it's dependencies that cause wasted time.

    Each side can work out their own issues in their own way, as long as they meet up. And how would you like spend a decade building a railroad and not have it meet up at the right place!

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    The Internet's Immune System in Arms Race with Digital Rights Management

    A popular image of the internet it to think of it as a vast interconnected intelligent organism, like this gorgeous map of the internet. If the image is true then who is the heart, the brain, the liver, the nervous system, or the alimentary canal? I'm sure you have candidates for each role :-) The immune system though I think is us, we the citizens of the internet. And we as the internet's immune system react to DRM as an invading organism: destroy ! destroy! destroy!

    The parallels between the arms race between invaders and the immune system and DRM and netizens are uncanny. The job of an immune system is to detect foreign invaders and destroy! them. This is harder than it looks. Distinguishing between an unwanted visitor and your liver takes some careful work. But once your immune system figures out what's you and not you, it attacks.

    Some organisms have figured out a way to beat the system by waiting a while for the immune system to detect them as foreign and then rapidly evolving by changing their DNA. This causes the immune system has to start the whole process all over again. We were all brought up on microevolution. Evolution happens by small point/insertion/deletion changes. But the scientist Barbara McClintock discovered something radical, that genes could jumparound chromosomes. This means genetic changes could be radical and immediate, not small and slow. Of course Ms. McClintock was ostracized by the scientific community for speaking a heresy. But modern science finally caught up to her, many decades later, and she won her Nobel prize.

    Todd Hoff's picture

    Agile Owes More to Aristotle than the Renaissance

    There's an interesting historical parallel between Agile software development, traditional large organizational software development and Aristotle and the new Renaissance politics of Machiavelli. Of course the part of Agile development is played by the great Greek genius Aristotle and the part of the evil giant organization development group is played by Machiavelli. Could it be any other way?

    Machiavelli's The Prince, the longest please hire me resume ever, revolutionized politics by turning the long accepted ideas of Aristotle into compost. Aristotle thought the state was founded on friendship and trust. To have a state you need a bond. That's how a gang becomes cohesive and turns into a team. That's how soldiers stand side by side together in battle against constant challenge and danger. And the basis of that bond, the basis for the state, must start with friendship and trust. The state can never be sustained by fear. The state succeeds based on personal morality.

    Sound like Agile now? You thought I was just crazy when I started out, didn't you?

    In a sure made for TV thriller, Machiavelli flat out contradicts Aristotle. This was a big deal in big M's time, for Aristotle was simply known as The Philosopher, and was assumed right about pretty much everything. It took some big ones to disagree with Aristotle.

    Machiavelli argues the basis of the state is fear of the Prince and the system of coercion the Prince creates to ensure the continuance of power. A Prince says if you do X here's the punishment or if you don't do Y here's the punishment. There's no weak minded friendship or trust or need for a unifying bond in big M's world. The Prince to stay in power must exercise power. What holds a people together is fear, fear of the Prince.

    Does this sound something like your usual software development group? Orders radiate down from the top and you are expected to follow orders under pain of death march.

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    What if Cars Were Rented Like We Hire Programmers?

    Imagine if you will that car rental agencies rented cars like programmers are hired at most software companies...

    Agency : So sorry you had to wait in the reception area for an hour. Nobody knew you were coming to today. I finally found 8 people to interview before we can give you a car. If we like you you may have to come in for another round of interviews tomorrow because our manager isn't in today. I didn't have a chance to read your application, so I'll just start with a question. What car do you drive today?
    Applicant : I drive a 2002 Subaru.
    Agency : That's a shame. We don't have a Subaru to rent you.
    Applicant : That's OK. Any car will do.
    Agency : No, we can only take on clients who know how to drive the cars we stock. We find it's safer that way. There are so many little differences between cars, we just don't want to take a chance.
    Applicant : I have a drivers license. I know how to drive. I've been driving all kinds of cars for 15 years, I am sure I can adapt.
    Agency : We appreciate your position, but we can only take exact matches. Otherwise, how could we ever know if you could drive one of our cars?
    Applicant : Oookay. I've driven a Taurus before. You probably rent those, don't you?
    Agency : Indeed we do. What year did you drive?
    Applicant : It was 2005...but I don't see how that ma...
    Agency : Oh sorry, we use the 2006 model. We can't possibly let you drive a later model.
    Applicant : But, but they aren't that different. Surely if I can drive a 2005 I can drive a 2006.
    Agency : Sorry, sir. Our requirements clearly spell out that you must be able to drive a 2006 model.
    Applicant : I've driven a 2006 Escort. Do you rent those?
    Agency : Ah, excellent, you are in luck. We have one in stock.
    Applicant : Great. Can I rent it?
    Agency : No, no, no. We have to go through our interviews now. I'll go try and find the first person.

    Todd Hoff's picture

    When You Do Nothing Good Things Happen

    This is the advice of Barry Schwartz, author of the Paradox of Choice. You can see the video of his presentation at google at

    One the big points of his book is that "the more choices available the more likely you will choose nothing." This has enormous implications for life as we know it, but as this is nominally a programming blog, I also see it having a lot of relevance to program design.

    One of his recommendations to overcome the problem is to use opt-out instead of opt-in. When you ask people to opt-out of becoming organ donors, for example, you get a lot more people becoming donors. When you ask people to opt-out of joining a 401K you get a lot more people joining a 401K. The idea is that when people do nothing they get what's probably in their best interests. More people becoming organ donors and joining 401Ks are good things.

    How does this related to programming?

    At the application level we usually do a pretty good job of providing default options that give a good user experience. Can you imagine MS Windows, for example, by default providing no security and expecting the user to turn on all the security options? It would be nightmare. Oh, wait, that what they do, isn't it?

    Yet some default options perplex me. Why doesn't my editor by default save my changes all the time so my changes are safe from a power outage? I have to dig through 10 layers of menus to turn this work saving feature on. I usually remember to turn it on only after I have lost an hour's worth of work. So maybe at the application level we could do a better job of providing a "good things happen" experience.

    Todd Hoff's picture

    How are Unit Tests Like Chemical Reactions?

    Every so often I read someone who thinks because they do unit testing with 100% coverage they don't need to do any other type of testing (regression, system, acceptance). What could possibly go wrong if all the units work?

    One way to think of a program is a program is like a chemical reaction. A bunch of particles react to make a product. An interesting feature of chemical reactions is the resulting product has nothing to do with the original particles. I think about this as the role model for emergent properties in general.

    Take as an example our old friend H(2)O: water. We bathe in it, we drink it, we throw it on people when they catch on fire. Let's take a closer look at the components of water.

    Water consists of hydrogen and oxygen. By looking at the properties of hydrogen and oxygen individually could you predict the properties of water? Let's see.

    First take a look at this movie of the Hindenburg exploding. The Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen and as you can see it is highly flammable.

    Oxygen itself doesn't burn, but oxygen is required to make everything else burn. Add oxygen to a flame and you get a lot more flame.

    So when you combine hydrogen and oxygen what do you get? Shouldn't get a compound that burns and explodes into a fiery hell? You would think so, but you get water instead.

    To recap:

              hydrogen      - think Hindenburg
           + oxygen         - burn baby burn
           =   water          - not fiery hell

    The properties of the elements doesn't tell you what will be the properties of the resulting compound after the reaction.

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    The Solution to C++ Threading is Erlang

    This amusing and disturbing post on C++ Threading paints C++ going the same way Java went, into a corner. Having been on more than a few large distributed programming projects I have kept careful tally on how many people can get large complex threading projects correct. After a long and careful analysis the results are clear: 11 out of 10 people can't handle threads. It gets too complex too fast. I do not have fMRI studies showing brains literally melting when thinking about multi-threaded programs, just many many anecdotes.

    I recall fondly one of our most experienced engineers creating a lock that was off by one instruction and how that 1 in a million error took weeks of debugging by a tiger team to find. The release was eventually canceled. I recall how I took a lock on a data structure that when the system scaled up in size lasted 100 milliseconds too long which caused backups in queues throughout the system and deadly cascade of drops and message retries. Very embarrassing, but even more difficult to anticipate. I can recall how having a common memory library was an endless source of priority inversion problems. These same issues came up over and over again. Deadlock. Corruption. Priority inversion. Performance problems. Impossibility of new people to understand how the system worked.

    Yet when it all worked it worked so beautifully the pain was almost worth it. Almost. It's like the image of the City on the Hill. Almost within our earthly grasp, but just out of reach. Yet we keep striving, hubris driving us ever forward in her many threaded chariot.

    Todd Hoff's picture

    Creating Code that Works

    Time spent creating mock objects is often wasted. The "T" in
    Test Driven Design is just as important as the "D."
    Real tests--ones that find bugs--require testing real code.
    Emphasizing making fast tests using mocks misses what is most
    important: creating code that works in your deployed environment.

    If your code passed a unit test using mocks but failed
    in a system test, you would get no sympathy from me.
    Your shit must work, i don't want to hear about the rest.

    This may sound stupid, but things are what they are.
    If you have a rule like tests must be fast, and apply
    that rule blindly, then you are not paying attention
    to what things are, you are just paying attention to
    the rule. This causes you to justify dropping testing
    in favor of test speed.

    For the same reason people say you don't need to test
    setters and getters, i don't really find a lot of problems
    with incorrect communication with other classes. For
    all the pros of the design part of TDD, i still want
    to find bugs and to find the "real" bugs you need
    to test the real code. If that takes time then it
    takes time.

    Favoring mock creation means i am spending considerable time
    creating tests that skip about a gazillion failure interaction modes.
    That's time i would rather spend on finding real problems
    in real code and creating real code to solve real problems.

    You want to find problems in unit tests rather then system or
    acceptance tests because bugs are much easier to find, reproduce,
    and fix in the unit test environment. If it is being said problems
    will be found at higher levels of test then i think you can do away
    with most unit testing period because you can always make this

    I do use mocks, have for many many years, but using mocks
    is a last resort for me, not the way to do everything.

    The above response is in reaction to:

    > Seth Ladd: