On this week's episode, Steph and Chris respond to a listener question about how to know if we're improving as developers. They discuss the heuristics they think about when it comes to improving, how they've helped the teams they've worked with plan for and measure their growth, and some specific tips for improving.
- Rails Autoscale
- Rubular regex playground
- The Pragmatic Programmer
- Go Ahead, Make a Mess by Sandi Metz
- Confident Code - Avdi Grimm
- Therapeutic Refactoring - Katrina Owen
- Refactoring, Good to Great - Ben Orenstein
CHRIS: There's something intriguing about the fact that we're having this conversation, but the thing that's recorded just starts at this arbitrary point in time, and it's usually us rambling about golden roads. But, I don't know; there's something existential about that.
STEPH: It's usually when someone says something very funny or starts singing [laughs], and then that's when we immediately: record, record!
CHRIS: I've never sung on the mic. That doesn't sound like a thing I would do.
CHRIS: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Chris Toomey.
STEPH: And I'm Steph Viccari.
CHRIS: And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way. So Steph, how's your week going?
STEPH: Hey Chris, it's going really well. Normally I'm always like, wow, it's been such an exciting week, and it's been a pretty calm, chill week. It's been lovely.
CHRIS: That sounds nice actually in contrast to the "Well, it's been a week," that sort of intro of "I don't know, it's been fine. It can be really nice."
STEPH: By the time we get to this moment of the week, I either have stuff that I'm so excited to talk about and have a little bit of a therapy session with you or share something new that I've learned. I agree; it's nice to be like, yeah, it's been smooth sailing this whole week. In fact, it was smooth sailing enough that I decided to take on something that I've been meaning to tackle for a while but have just been avoiding it because I have strong feelings about this, which you know but we haven't talked about yet. But it comes down to managing emails and how many emails one should have that are either unread that are just existing. And I fall into the category of where I am less scrupulous about how many unread or managed emails that I have. But I decided that I'd had enough. So I used a really nice filter in Gmail where I said I want all emails that are before 2021 and also don't have a user label, so it's has:nouserlabels because then I know those are all the emails that I haven't labeled or assigned to a particular...I want to say folder, but they're not truly folders; they just look like folders. So they're essentially like untriaged or just emails that I've left hanging out in the ether. And then I just started deleting, and I got rid of all of those that hadn't been organized up until that point. And I was just like yep, you know if I haven't looked at it, it's that old, and I haven't given a label by this point, I'm just going to move on. If it's important, it will bubble back up. And I feel really good about it.
CHRIS: Wow, that is -- I like how you backed me into a corner. Obviously, I'm on the other side where I'm fastidiously managing my email, which I am, but you backed me into that corner here. So, yeah, that's true. Although the approach that you're taking of just deleting all the old email that's a different one than I would have taken [chuckles] so, I like it. It's the nuclear option.
STEPH: Okay, so now I need to qualify. When you delete an email, initially, I'm thinking it's going to trash, and so it's still technically there if I need to retrieve it and go back and find it. But you just said nuclear option, so maybe they're actually getting deleted.
CHRIS: They're going into the trash for 30 days; I think is the timeline. But after that, they will actually delete them. The archive is supposed to be the place where you put stuff I don't want to see you anymore. But did you archive or delete?
STEPH: Oh, I deleted.
CHRIS: Oh, wow. Yeah. All right, you went for it. [laughter]
STEPH: Yeah, and that's cool. And it's in trash. So I basically have a 30-day window where I'm like, oh, I made a mistake, and I need to search for something and find something and bring it back into my world; I can find it. If I haven't searched for it by then in 30 days, then I say, you know, thanks for the email, goodbye. [chuckles] And it'll come back if it needs to.
CHRIS: I like the approach. It would not be my approach, but I like the commitment to the cause. Although you still have...how many emails are still in your inbox now?
STEPH: Why do we have to play the numbers game?
STEPH: Can't we just talk about the progress that I have made?
CHRIS: What wonderful progress you've made, Steph. [laughter] Like, it doesn't matter what I think. What do you think about this? Are you happy with this? Does this make you feel more joy when you look into your email in the Marie Kondo sense?
STEPH: It does. I am excited that I went ahead and cleared all this because it just felt like craft. So I have taken what may be a very contentious approach to my email, where I treat it as this searchable space. So as things come in, I triage them, and I will label them, I will star them. I will either snooze them to make sure I don't miss the high actionable emails or something that's very important to me to act on quickly. But for the most part, then a lot of stuff will sit in that inbox area. So it becomes like this junk drawer. It's a very searchable junk drawer, thanks to Google. They've done a great job with that. And it feels nice to clear out that junk drawer. But I do have such an aversion to that very strong email inbox zero. I respect the heck out of it, but I have an aversion; I think from prior jobs where I was on a team, and we could easily get like 800 emails a day. My day all day was just triaging and responding to emails and writing emails. And so I think that just left a really bitter experience where now I just don't want to have to live that life where I'm constantly catering to what's in my inbox.
CHRIS: That's so many emails.
STEPH: It was so many emails. We were a team. It was a team inbox. So there were three of us managing this inbox. So if someone stepped away or if someone was away on vacation, we all had access to the same emails. But still, it was a lot of emails.
CHRIS: Yeah, inbox zero in a shared inbox that is a level that I have not gotten to but getting to inbox zero and actually maintaining that is very much a labor of love and something that I've had to invest in. And it's probably not worth it for most people. You could convince me that it is not worth it for me, that the effort I'm putting in is too much effort for not enough reward. Well, it's one of those things where I find the framing that it puts on it, like, okay, I need to process my email and get it to zero at least once a day. Having that lens makes me think about email in a different way. I unsubscribe from absolutely everything. The only things that are allowed to come into my email are things that I will act on that actually deserve my attention, and so it forces that, which I really like. And then it forces me to think about things. I have a tendency to really hold off on decisions. So I'm like, ah, okay. I can go see friends on Saturday or I can do something else. Friends like actual humans, not the TV show, although for the past year, it's definitely more of the TV show than the real people. But let's say there's a potential thing that I could do on the weekend and I have to decide on that. I have a real tendency to drag my feet and to wait for some magical information from the universe to help this decision be obvious to me. But it's never going to be obvious, and at some point, I just need to pick. And so for inbox zero, one of the things that comes out of it for me is that pressure and just forcing me to be like, dude, there's no perfect answer here, just pick something. You got to just pick something and not wasting multiple cycles rethinking the same decision over and over because that's my natural tendency. So in a way, it's, I don't know, almost like a meditative practice sort of thing. There's utility there for me, but it is an effort, and it's, again, arguably not worth it. Still, I do it. I like it. I'm a fan. I think it's worth it.
STEPH: I like how you argued both sides. I'm with you. I think it depends on the value that you get out of it. And then, as long as you are effective with whichever strategy you take, then that's really what matters. And I do appreciate the lens that it applies where if you are getting to inbox zero every day, then you are going to be very strict about who can send you emails about notifications that you're going to receive because you are trying to reduce the work that then you have to get to inbox zero. So I do very much admire that because there are probably -- I'm wasting a couple of minutes each day deleting notifications from chats or stuff that I know I'm not necessarily directly involved in and don't need action from me. And then I do get frustrated when I can't adjust those notification settings for that particular application, and I'm just subscribed to all of it. So some of it I feel like I can't change, and then some of it, I probably am wasting a few minutes. So I think there's totally value in both approaches. And I'm also saying that to try to justify my approach of my searchable inbox. [laughs]
CHRIS: There are absolutely reasons to go either way. And also, to come back to what I was saying a minute ago, it may have sounded like I'm a person who's just on top of this. I may have given that impression briefly. I think the only time this has actually worked in my life is when Gmail introduced snooze both in the mobile app and on the desktop. So this is sometime after Google's inbox product came out, and that was eventually shut down. So it's relatively recent because, man, I just snooze everything. That is the actual secret to achieving inbox zero, just to reach the end of the day and be like, nah, and just send all the emails to future me. And then future me wakes up and is like, "You know, it's first thing in the morning. I got a nice cup of coffee, and this is what you're going to do to me, past me?" So there's a little bit of internal strife there within my one human. But yeah, the snoozing is actually incredibly useful and probably the only way that I actually get things done and the same within any task management system that I have; maybe future me will do this.
STEPH: I think you and I both subscribed to the that's a future me problem. We just do it in very different ways. But switching gears a bit, how's your week been?
CHRIS: It's been good, pretty normal, doing some coding, normal developer things. Actually, there's one tool that I was revisiting this week that I'm not sure that we've actually talked about on the show before, but it's Rails Autoscale. Have you used that before?
STEPH: I don't think I have. It sounds very familiar, but I don't think I've used it.
CHRIS: It's a very nice, straightforward Heroku add-on that does exactly what you want it to do. It monitors your web and worker dynos and will scale up. But it uses a different heuristic than -- So Heroku has built-in autoscaling, but theirs is based on response time, which is, I think, a little bit laggier of a metric. Like if your response time has gotten bad, then you're already in trouble, whereas Rails Autoscale uses queue time. So how long is a request waiting before? I think it's at the Heroku router; it goes onto the dyno that's actually going to process the request? So I think that's what they're monitoring. I may be wrong on that. But from the website, they're looking at that, and you can configure it. They actually have a really nice configuration dashboard for configure between this range, so one to five dynos at most, and scale in this way up and in this way down. So like, how long should it wait? What's the threshold of queue time? Those sorts of things. So they have a default like just do the smart thing for me, and then they give you more control if your app happens to have a different shape of data, which is all really nice. And then I've been using that for a while, but I recently this week actually just turned on the worker side. And so now the workers will autoscale up and down as the Sidekiq queue -- I think for the Sidekiq side, it's also the queue time, so how long a job sits in the queue before getting picked up. And there are some extra niceties. It can actually infer the different queue names that you have. So if you have a critical, and then a mailer, and then a general as the three queues that Sidekiq is managing, you really want critical to not back up. So you can tell it to watch that one but ignore the normal one and only use -- Like, when critical is actually getting backed up, and all the other stuff is taken over then -- Again, it's got nice knobs and things, but mostly you can just say, "Turn it on and do the normal thing," and it'll do a very smart thing."
STEPH: That does sound really helpful. Just to revisit, so Heroku for autoscaling, when you turn that on, I think Heroku does it based on response times. So if you get into a specific percentile, then Heroku is going to scale up for you to then bring down that response time. But it sounds like with this tool, with Rails autoscaling, then you have additional knobs like the Sidekiq timing that you'd referenced. Are there some other knobs that you found really helpful?
CHRIS: Basically, there are two different sides of it. So web and background jobs are going to be handled differently within this tool, and you can actually turn them on or off individually, and you can also, within them, the configurations are specific to that type of thing. So for the web side, you have different values that you can set as the thresholds than you do on the Sidekiq side. Overall, the queue name only makes sense on the Sidekiq side, whereas on the web side, it's just like the web requests all of them 'Please make sure they're not spending too much time waiting for a dyno to actually start processing them.' But yeah, again, it's just a very straightforward tool that does the thing that it says on the tin. I enjoy it. It's one of those simple additions where it's like, yeah, I think I'm happy to pay for this because you're just going to save me a bunch of money every month, in theory. And actually, that side of it is certainly interesting, but more of my app will be responsive if there is any spike in traffic. There's still plenty of other performance things under the hood that I need to make better, but it was nice to just turn those on and be like, yeah, okay. I think everything's going to run a little better now. That seems nice. But yeah, otherwise, for me, a very straightforward week.
So I think actually shifting gears again, we have a listener question that we wanted to chat about. And this is one that both of us got very interested to chat about because there's a lot to this topic, but I'm happy to read it here. So the overall topic is improving as a developer, and the question goes, "How do you know you're improving as developers? Is your improvement consistent? Are there regressions? I find myself having very different views about code than I did even a year ago. In some cases, I write code now in a way that I would have criticized not too long ago. For example, I started writing a lot more comments. I used to think a well-named variable obviated the need for comments. While it feels like I'm improving, I have no way of measuring the improvement. It's only a gut feeling. Thanks. Love the show." And this comes from Tom. Thank you, Tom. Glad you enjoy the show. So, Steph, are you improving as a developer?
STEPH: I love this question. Thanks, Tom, for sending it in because it is one that I think about but haven't really verbalized, and so I'm really excited to dive into this. So am I improving as a developer? It comes down to, I mean, we first have to talk through definitions. Like, what does it mean to become a better developer? And then, we can talk through metrics and understanding how we're getting there. I also love the other questions, which I know we'll get to. I'm just excited. But are there any regressions? And also, in my mind, they already answered their own question. But I'm getting ahead of myself. So let me actually back up. So how do you know you're improving as a developer? There are a couple of areas that come to mind. And for me, these are probably more in that space of they still have a little bit of a gut feeling to them, but I'm going to try hard to walk that back into a more measurable state. So one of them could be that you're becoming more comfortable with the work that you're doing, so if you are implementing a new email flow or running task on production or writing tests that become second nature, those types of activities are starting to feel more comfortable. To me, that is already a sign of progress, that you are getting more comfortable in that area. It could be that time estimates are becoming more accurate. So perhaps, in the beginning, they're incredibly -- like, you don't have any idea. But as you are gaining experience and you're improving as a developer, you can provide more accurate estimates.
I also like to use the metric of how many people are coming to you for help, not necessarily in hard numbers, but I tend to notice when someone on a team is the person that everybody else goes to for help, maybe it's just on a specific topic, maybe it's for the application in general. But I take that as a sign that someone is becoming very knowledgeable in the area, and that way, they're showing that they're improving as a developer, and other people are noticing that and then going to them for help. Those are a couple of the ones that I have. I have some more, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.
CHRIS: I think if nothing else, starting with how would we even measure this? Because I do agree it's going to be a bit loose. Unfortunately, I don't believe that there are metrics that we can use for this. So the idea of how many thousand lines of codes do you write a month? Like, that's certainly not the one I want to go with. Or, how many pull requests? Anything like that is going to get gamified too quickly. And so it's really hard to actually define truly quantifiable metrics. I have three in mind that scale the feedback loop length of time. So the first is just speed. Like, how quickly are you able to do the same tasks? So I need to build out a page in Rails. I need a route; I need a controller. I need a feature spec, those sort of things. Those tasks that come up over and over: are you getting faster with those? That's a way to measure. And there's an adage that I think comes from biking, professional cycling, that it never gets any easier; you just go faster. And so the idea is you're doing the same work over time, but you just get a little bit faster, and you're always trying that edge of your capabilities. And so that idea of it never gets any easier, but you are getting faster. I like that framing. We should be doing the same work. We should never get too good for building a crud app. That's my official stance on the matter; thank you very much. But yeah, so that's speed. I think that is a meaningful thing to keep an eye on and your ability to actually deliver features in a timely fashion.
The next one would be how robust are the things that you're building? What's the bug count? How regularly do you have to revisit something that you've built to change it, to tweak it either because it doesn't exactly match the intent of the feature that you're developing or because there's an actual bug in it? It turns out this thing that we do is very hard. There are so many moving pieces and getting the design right and getting the functionality just right and handling user input, man, that's tricky. Users will just send anything. And so that core idea of robustness that's going to be more on a week scale sort of thing. So there's a little bit of latency in that measure, whereas speed that's a pretty direct measure.
The third one is…I don't know how to frame this, but the idea of being able to revisit your code either yourself or someone else. So if you've written some code, you tried to solve a problem; you tried to encode whatever knowledge you had at the given time in the code. And then when you come back three months later, how easy is it to revisit that code, to change it, to extend it either for yourself (because at that point you've forgotten everything) or for someone else on the team? And so the more that you're writing code that is very easy to extend, that is very easy to revisit and reload that context into your head, how closely the code maps to the actual domain context I think that's a measure as well that I'm really interested in, but there's the most lag in that one. It's like, yeah, months later, did you do a good job? And so the more time you spend, the more you'll have a measure of that, but that's definitely the laggiest of the measures that I have in mind.
STEPH: I love that adage that you shared that it never gets easier, but you get faster. That feels so relevant. I really like that. And then I hadn't considered the robustness. That's a really nice one, too, in terms of how often do you have to go back and revisit issues that you've added?
CHRIS: You just write code without bugs; that's why you don't think about it.
STEPH: [laughs] Oh, if only that were true.
CHRIS: Yeah, if only that were true of any of us.
STEPH: To keep adding to the list, there are a couple more that come to mind too. I'd mentioned the idea that certain tasks become easier. There's also the capability or the level of comfort in taking on that new, big, scary, unknown task. So there is something on the Teams' board where you're like, I have no idea how to do that, but I have confidence that I can figure it out. I think that is a really big sign that you are growing as a developer because you understand the tools that'll get you to that successful point. And maybe that means persuading someone else to help you; maybe it means looking elsewhere for resources. But you at least know how to get there, which then follows up on your ability to unblock yourself. So if you are in that state of I just don't know what to do next, maybe it's Googling, or maybe it is reaching out for help, but either way, you keep something moving forward instead of just letting it sit there.
Another area that I've seen myself and other people grow as developers is our ability to reason about quality and speed. It's something that I feel you, and I talk about pretty often here on the show, but it comes down to our ability to not just write code but then to also make good decisions on behalf of the company that we are working for and the team that we're working with and understanding what matters in terms of what features really need to be part of this MVP? Where can we make compromises? And then figuring out where can we make compromises to get this out to market? But what's really important then for circling back to your idea of revisiting the code, we want code that we can still come back and trust and then easily maintain and make updates to. And then I feel like I'm rambling, but I have a couple more. Shall I keep going?
CHRIS: Keep going. Those are great.
STEPH: All right. So for the others, there's an increase in responsibilities that I notice. So, in addition to people coming to you more often for help, then it could be that you are receiving more responsibilities. Maybe you are taking on specific ownership of the codebase or a particular part of the team processes. Then that also shows that you are improving and that people would like you to take leadership or ownership of certain areas. And then this one, I am throwing it in here, but your ability to run a meeting. Because I think that's an important part of being a good developer is to also be able to run a meeting with your colleagues and for that to be a productive meeting.
CHRIS: Cool. I like that one. I think I want to build on that because I think the core idea of being able to run a meeting well is communication. And I think there's one level of doing this job where it's just about doing the job. It's just about writing the code, maybe some amount of translating a specification or a ticket or whatever it is into the actual code that you need to write. But then how well can you communicate back out? How well when someone in project management says, "Hey, we want to build an aggregated search across the system that searches across our users, and our accounts, and our products, and our orders, and our everything." And you're like, "Okay. We can do that, but it will be hard. And let's talk about the trade-offs inherent in that and the different approaches and why we might pick one versus the other," being able to have that conversation requires a depth of knowledge in the technical but then also being able to understand the business needs and communicate across that boundary. And I think that's definitely an axis on which I enjoy pushing on as I'm continuing to work as a developer.
STEPH: Yeah, I'm with you. And I think being a consultant and working at thoughtbot heavily influences my concept of improving as a developer because as developers, it's not just our job to write code but to also be able to communicate and help make good decisions for the team and then collaborate with everyone else in the company versus just implement certain features as they come down the pipeline. So communication is incredibly important. And so I love that that's one of the areas that you highlighted.
CHRIS: Actually speaking of the communication thing, there's obviously the very human-centric part of that, but there's, I think, another facet of technical communication that is API design. When you're writing your code, what do you choose to expose and make accessible to collaborators? And I don't just mean API in the terms of a REST API that people are heading, but I mean a class that you have in your system. What are the private methods, and what are the public methods? And how do you think about the shape of it? What data do you expose? What do you not expose? And that can be really impactful because it allows how can you change things over time? The more that you hide, the more you can change. But then, if you don't allow your collaborators to access the bits that they need to be able to work with your system, that's an interesting one that comes to mind. It also aligns with, I don't think you were saying this exactly, but the idea of taking on more amorphous projects. So like, are you working within a system and adding a new feature, or are you designing a system? Are you architecting? The word architect that role can sometimes be complicated within organizations, but that idea of I'm starting fresh, and I'm building a system that others will then work within I think this idea of API design becomes really interesting in that context. What shape do you give to the system that we're working within, and what affordances? And all of that. And that's a very hard thing to get right. So it comes from experience of being like, I used some stuff in the past, and I hated it, so when I am the architect, I will build it better. And then you try, and you fail, and you're like, well, okay, but now I've learned. And then you try it, and then you fail for different reasons. But the seventh time you try, it may be just that time you get the public API just right on the first go.
STEPH: Seven times's a charm. That's how that goes, right?
CHRIS: That is my understanding, yes.
STEPH: I think something that is related to the idea of are you working in a structured space versus working in a new space and then how you develop that API for other people to work with. And then how do you identify when to write a test and what to test? That's another area that you were just making me think of is that I can tell when someone has experience with testing because they know what to test and what feels important to test. And essentially, it comes down to can I deploy with confidence? But there are a lot of times, especially if you're new to testing, that you're going to test everything, and you're going to have a lot of probably useless slow tests. But over time, you will start to realize what's really important. And I think that's one of the areas where then it does start to get harder to measure yourself as a developer because all of our jobs are different, and we work with different tech stacks, and we all have our unique responsibilities and goals. So it may be hard to say specifically like, "Oh, you're really good at X, Y, and Z, and that's how you know that you're improving as a developer." But I have more thoughts on that, which we'll get to in a moment where Tom mentioned that they don't have a way of measuring improvement. Shall I go ahead and jump ahead to I have no way of measuring that improvement, or shall we talk about regressions next?
CHRIS: I'm interested in your thoughts on the regressions question because it's not something that I've really thought about. But now that he's asked the question, I'm thinking about it. So yeah, what are your thoughts on that?
STEPH: My very quick answer is yes, [laughs] that there are regressions mainly because I respect that our brain can only make so much knowledge readily available to us, and then everything else goes into long-term storage. We can access it at some point, but it takes additional time, or maybe it takes some practice to recall that skill. So I do think there are regressions, and I think that's totally fine that we should be focused on what is serving us most at the moment and be okay with letting go of some of those other skills until we need to refine them again.
STEPH: Yeah, I agree. The core concepts definitely feel more important and more applicable to all the future situations that we're going to be in. So those skills that may fall into the regression category feel appropriate because we are focused on the bigger picture versus how well do I remember this rejects library or something that won't serve us as well? So I agree. I am often focused more on how can I take this lesson and then apply it to other tech stacks or other teams and keep that with me? And I don't want that to regress. But it's okay if those other smaller, easily Google-able skills fall to the side. [laughs]
CHRIS: Wait, are you implying that you can't write rejects just off the top of your head or what's…?
STEPH: I don't think I could write any rejects off the top of my head. [laughter]
CHRIS: Fair. All right. You just go to rubular.com, hit enter, and then we iterate.
STEPH: Oh yeah. I don't want to use up valuable space for maintaining that sort of information. Rubular has it for me. I'm just going to go there.
CHRIS: I mean, as long as you have the index of the places you go on the internet to find the truth, then you don't need to store that truth.
STEPH: A moment ago, you mentioned where Tom highlights that they have different views about code that they wrote, even code that they wrote just like a year ago. And to me, that's a sign of growth in terms that you can look back on code that you have written and be like, well, maybe this would be different, or maybe this is still a good idea, but the fact that you are changing and then reevaluating, I think that is awesome because otherwise, if we aren't able to do that, then that is just a sign of being stagnant to me. We are sticking to the knowledge that we had a year ago, and we haven't grown since then versus that already shows that they have taken in new knowledge. So then that way, they can assess should I be adding comments? When should I add comments? Maybe I should swing away from that idea of this is a hard line of don't ever do this. I think I just have to mention it because there is one that I always feel so deeply about, DRY. DRY is the concept that gives me the most grief in terms that people just overuse it to the point that they do make code very hard to change. All right, that's my bit. I'll get off my pedestal. But DRY and comments are two things [chuckles] that both have their places.
CHRIS: I don't know if your experience was similar, but around DRY, I definitely have had the pendulum swing of how I feel about it. And I think again, that honing in thing. But initially, I think I read The Pragmatic Programmers, and they told me that DRY is important. And then I was like, absolutely, there will be no duplication anywhere, and then I felt some pain from that. And I've been in other systems and experienced places where people did remove duplication. I was like, oh, maybe it would have been better, and so I slowly got out of that mindset. But now I'm just in the place of like, I don't know, copy and paste not now, there was a period where I was like, just copy and paste everything. And then I was like, all right, I think there's a subtle line. There's a perfect amount of duplication, and that's the goal is to figure out that just perfect level. But for me, it really has been that evolution, and I was on one side, and then I was on the other side, and then I'm honing back in. And now I have my personal truth about duplication.
STEPH: Oh, me too. And I feel like I can be a little more negative about it because I was in the same spot. Because it's a rule, it's a rule that you can apply that when you are new to software development, there aren't that many rules that are so easy to apply to your codebase, but DRY is one of them. You can say, oh, that is duplication. I know exactly what that is, and I can extract it. And then it takes time for you to realize, okay, I can identify it, but just because it's there, it doesn't mean it's a bad thing. Perfect duplication, I like it.
CHRIS: Coming back to the idea of when we look back on our code six months, a year later, something like that, I think I believe the statement that we should always look back on our code and be like, oh, what was I doing there? But I think that arc should change over time. So early on in my career, six months later, I look back at my code, and I'm like, oh, goodness, what was happening there? I was very much a self-taught or blog internet-taught programmer just working on my own. I had no one else to talk to. So the stuff that I wrote early on was not good is how I will describe it. And then I got better, and then I got better, and I hope that I'm still getting better. And it's something that probably draws me to software development is I feel like there's always room to get a little bit better. Again, even back to that adage of it doesn't get any easier; you just go faster. Like, that's a version of getting better in my mind. So I hope that I can continue to feel that improvement and that ratcheting up. But I also hope that that arc is leveling off. There is an asymptotic approach to "good software developer." People in the audience, you can't see my air quotes, but I made air quotes there around good software developer. But that idea of I shouldn't look back probably this far into my career and look back at code from three months ago and be like, that's awful. That dude should be fired. I hope I'm not there. And so if you're measuring over time, what does your three months ago look back feel like? Oh, I feel like it's a little better. Still, you should look back and be like, oh, I probably would do that a little bit different given what I know now, what I've learned, but less so, I think. I don't know, what do you think about that?
STEPH: Yeah, that makes sense. And I'm also realizing I haven't looked back at my code that much since I am changing projects, and then I don't always have the opportunity to go back to that project and then revisit some of the code. But I do agree with the idea that if you're looking back at code that you've written a couple of months ago that you can see areas that you would improve, but I agree that you wouldn't want it to be something drastic. Like, you wouldn't want to see something that was more of an obvious security hole or performance issue. I think there are maybe certain metrics that I would use. I think they can still happen for sure because we're always learning, but there's also -- I may be taking this in a slightly different direction than you meant, but there's also a kindness filter that I also want us to apply to ourselves where if you're looking back three months ago to six years ago and you're like, oh, that's some rough code, Stephanie. But it's also like, yeah, but that code got me to where I am today, and I'm continuing to progress. So I appreciate who I was in the past, and I have continued to progress to who I am today and then who I will be.
CHRIS: What a wonderfully positive lens to put on it. Actually, that makes me think of one of -- We may be getting into rant territory here, but we talk a lot about imposter syndrome in the software development world. And I think there's a lot of utility because this is something that almost everyone experiences. But I think there's a corollary to it that we should talk about, which is a lot of people are coming into this industry, and they're like one year in, and the expectation that one year into a career that -- The thing that we do is not easy as far as I can tell. I haven't figured out how to make it easy. And the expectation that someone's going to be an expert that early on is just completely unreasonable in my mind. In my previous career, I was a mechanical engineer, and I went to school for four years. I actually went to school for five years, not because I was bad at school, but because I went to a place that had a co-op. And so I had both three different six months experiences working and four years of classroom education before I even got any job. And then I started doing things, and that's normal in that world. Whereas in the development world, it is so accessible, and I really feel like that's an absolutely wonderful thing. But the counterpoint of that is folks can jump into this career path very early on in their learning, and the expectation that they can immediately become experts or even in the short order I don't think is realistic. I think sometimes, when we talk about imposter syndrome, we may do a disservice. Like, it's not imposter syndrome. You're just new, and that's totally fine. And I hope you're working in an organization that is supportive of that and that has space for that and can help you grow in a purposeful way. In my mind, it's not realistic to expect everyone to be an expert a year in—end rant.
STEPH: Well, I would love to plus-one your rant and add to it a little bit because I completely agree. I also love the phrasing that you just said where it's not that you have imposter syndrome; it's just that you are new and that team should be supportive of people that are new and helping them grow and level up. I also think that's true for senior developers in terms that you are very good at certain skills, but there's always going to be some area of the web or some area of software development that you are new to, and that is also not imposter syndrome. But it's fine to assess your own skills and say, "That's something that I don't know how to do." And sometimes, I think that gets labeled as imposter syndrome, but it's not. It's someone just being genuine and reflecting on their current skills and saying, "I am good at a lot of stuff, but I don't know this one, and I am new to this area." And I think that's an important distinction to make because I still want -- even if you are not new in the sense that you are new to being a software engineer, but you still have that space to be new to something.
CHRIS: Yeah, it's an interesting, constantly evolving space. And so giving ourselves a little bit of permission to be beginners on various topics and for me, that's been an experience that's been continual. I think being a consultant, being a freelancer that impacts it a little bit. But nonetheless, even when I go into organizations, I'm like, oh, years in technology that only came out two years ago. That's pretty fresh. And so it's really hard to be an expert on something that's that new.
STEPH: Yeah. I think being new to a team has its own superpower. I don't know if we've talked about that before; if we haven't, we should talk about, it but I won't do that now. But being new is its own superpower. But I do want to pivot back to where Tom mentioned that I have no way of measuring that improvement. And I think that's a really great thing to recognize that you're not sure how to measure something. And my very first honest suggestion if you are feeling that way is to go ask your manager and ask them how they are measuring your improvement because that is their job is to understand where you're at and to understand your path as a developer on the team and then helping you set goals.
So since I'm a manager at thoughtbot, I'll go first, and I can share some ways that I help my team measure their own improvement. So one of the ways is that each time that we meet to discuss work, I listen to their challenges, and I take notes; I'm a heavy note-taker. And so once I have all those notes, then I can see are there any particular challenges that resurface? Are there any patterns, any areas where they continuously get stuck on? Or are they actually gaining confidence, and maybe something that would have given them trouble a couple of weeks ago is suddenly no big deal? And then I also see if they're able to unblock themselves. So a lot of what I do is far more listening, and I'm happy to then provide suggestions. But I am often just a space for someone to share what they are thinking, what they're going through, and then to walk through ideas and then provide suggestions if they would like some, and then they choose a suggestion that works best for them. And then we can revisit how did it go? So their ability to unblock themselves is also something that I'm looking for in terms of growth. And then together, we also set goals together, and then we measure that progress together. So it's all very transparent. And what areas would you like to improve, and then what areas would it be helpful for thoughtbot or as a consultant for you to improve? And then if I am fortunate enough to be on a project with them and see how they reason about quality and speed, how they communicate the type of features they're most comfortable to work on, and which tasks are more challenging for them, I also look to see do people enjoy working with them? That's a big area of growth and reflects communication, and reliability, and trust. And those are important areas for us to grow as developers. So those are some of the areas that I look to when I'm helping someone else measure their own improvement.
CHRIS: I really like that, the structured framing of it, and the way that you're able to give feedback and have that as a constant, continuous way to evaluate, define, measure, and then try and drive towards it. Flipping things around, I want to offer a slightly different thing, which isn't necessarily specifically in the question, but I think it's very close to the question of how do we actually improve as developers? What are the specific things that we can try and do? I'm going to offer a handful of ideas. I'd be super interested to hear what your ideas are. But one of the things that has been really valuable for me is exploring different languages and frameworks. I, without fail, find something in every new language or framework that I then bring back to the core things that I'm working with. And I've continued to work with Rails basically throughout my career, but everything else that I'm doing has informed the way that I work with Rails and the way that I think about building code. As specific examples, functional programming is a really interesting frame of mind, and Elm as a language is such a wonderful, gentle, friendly, fun introduction to functional programming because functional programming can get very abstract very easily. I've also worked with Haskell and Scala and other languages like that, and I find them much more difficult to work with. But Elm has a set of constraints and a user-centric approach that is just absolutely wonderful. So even if you never plan to build a production Elm application, I recommend Elm to absolutely everyone.
Another is… It's actually two-fold here. Teaching is one, and I don't mean that in the grand sense; you don't have to be an instructor at a bootcamp or anything like that but even just within your organization trying to host a lunch and learn and teach a concept. Without fail, you have to understand something all the better to be able to teach it. Or as you try and teach something, someone may ask you a question that just shakes the foundation of what you know, and you're like, wow, I hadn't thought about it that way. And so teaching for me has just been this absolutely incredible forcing function for understanding something and being able to communicate about it again, that being one of the core things that I'm thinking about. And then the other facet sort of a related idea is pairing, pair with another developer, pair with a developer who is more senior than you on the team, pair with someone who is more junior than you, pair with someone who's at the same level, pair with the designer, pair with the developer, pair with a product manager, pair with everyone. I cannot get enough pairing. Well, I can, actually. I read a blog post recently about 100% pairing, and I've never gotten anywhere close to that number. But I think a better way to put it is I think pairing applies in so many more contexts than people may traditionally think of it. People sometimes like to compartmentalize and like, pairing is great for big architecture design, but that's about it. And my stance would be pairing is actually great at everything. It is very high bandwidth. It is exhausting, but I have found immense value in every pairing session I've ever had. So, yeah, those are some loose thoughts off the top of my head. Do you have any how to get better protips?
STEPH: Yeah, that's a wonderful list. And I'm not sure if this exactly applies because it's been a while since I have seen this talk, but there is a wonderful talk by Sandi Metz. I mean, all of her talks are wonderful, but this one is Go Ahead, Make a Mess. And I believe that Sandi refers to or highlights the idea of trying something new and then reflecting on how did it go? And that was one of the areas that I learned early on, one of the ways to help me progress quickly as a developer. Outside of the suggestions that you've already shared around lots of pairing that was one of the ways that I leveled up quickly is to iterate quickly. So I used to really focus on the code that I was writing, and I thought it needed to be perfect before my colleagues could review it. But then I realized that the sooner that I would push something out for feedback, then the faster I would get other more experienced developers' input, and then that helped me learn at an accelerated rate and then also ship more frequently. So I'd also encourage you to just go ahead and iterate quickly. We talk about with software in general, we want to iterate on the code that we are pushing up for other people to look at and then give us feedback on and then reflect on how did it go? What did we learn? What are some areas that we can improve? I feel like that self-evaluation is huge, and it's something that I know that I frankly don't do enough because one, it also prompts us to appreciate the progress that we have made but then also highlights areas where I feel strong in this area, but these are other areas that I want to work on.
CHRIS: While we're on the topic of talks that have been impactful in our journeys of leveling up as developers, I want to quickly list three that just always come to mind for me: Avdi Grimm's Confident Code, Katrina Owen's Therapeutic Refactoring, and Ben Orenstein's Refactoring from Good to Great. There's a theme if you look across those three talks. They're all about refactoring, which is interesting. That tells you some stories about what I believe about how good software is made. It's not made; it's refactored. That's my official belief, but yeah.
STEPH: Love it. That's also another great list. [laughs] For additional ways to level up, there are some very specific areas where it could be maybe do code katas or code exercises, or maybe you subscribe to certain newsletters, stay up to date with a language, new features that are being released. But outside of those very specific things, and if folks find this helpful, then maybe you and I can make a fun list, and then we could share that on Twitter as well. But I always go back to the idea of regardless of what level you're at in your career is to think about your specific goals, maybe if you are new to a team and you're new to software development, then maybe you just have very incremental goals of like, I want to learn how to write a test, or I want to learn how to get better at PR review or something very specific. But to have real growth, I think you have to first consider where it is that you want to go and then figure out a way to measure to get there. Circling back to some of the ways that I help my teammates measure that growth, that's one of the things that we talk about. If someone says, "Well, I want to get better at PR review," I'm like, "Great. What does that mean to you? Like, how do you get better at PR review? How can we actually measure this and make it something actionable versus just having this vague feeling of am I better?" I think I've ended up taking this a bit more broad as you were providing more specific examples on how to level up. But I like the examples that you've already provided around education and then trying something outside of your comfort zone. So what's coming to mind are more of those broad strategies of goal setting.
CHRIS: I think generally, you need that combination. You need how do I set the measure? How do I think about improvement? And then also ideally a handful of tactics that you can try out. So hopefully, we provided a nice balanced summary here in this episode. And hopefully, Tom, if you're listening, you have gotten some useful things out of this conversation.
STEPH: Yeah, this was fun. We managed to take this topic and make a whole episode out of this. So thanks, Tom, for sending in such a great topic.
CHRIS: Frankly, when I saw the topic, I was certain this was going to happen. [chuckles] This was an obvious one that was going to fill up the time for us. But yeah, with that, I think we've probably covered plenty here. Should we wrap up?
STEPH: I'm sure there's more, but sure, let's wrap up.
CHRIS: The show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.
STEPH: This show is produced and edited by Mandy Moore.
CHRIS: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes, as it really helps other folks find the show.
STEPH: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed or reach me @SViccari on Twitter.
CHRIS: And I'm @christoomey.
STEPH: Or firstname.lastname@example.org via email.
CHRIS: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week.
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