Sohan's Blog

Things I'm Learning

“Ah, How Good It Is to Be Among People Who Are Reading.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

All creators take a deep interest in the creations of others. All filmmakers watch a lot of movies, all good writers are also the most prolific readers, all artists can talk at length about the smallest pieces of art they have seen.

We, software developers, if we want to claim ourselves as the artists of this craft, we must be prolific readers of code. There’s been no better time as today. We have immediate access to millions of lines of carefully written code out there in the internet. Just like artists of any craft, I’ve had so much fun spending time with my fellow developers that read code for the pure joy of learning something new.

Just had so much fun reading this ruby code today from the Ruby on Rails project:

class Array
  # Wraps the array in an +ArrayInquirer+ object, which gives a friendlier way
  # to check its string-like contents.
  #   pets = [:cat, :dog].inquiry
  #     # => true
  #   pets.ferret?  # => false
  #   pets.any?(:cat, :ferret)  # => true
  #   pets.any?(:ferret, :alligator)  # => false
  def inquiry

The beautify of this rich API is an art. I love it. You may have different opinions. But I hope you find your love of art in code. There’s plenty of art in code out there for everyone to enjoy.

How Am I Developing the People I Support as a People Leader?

After being a people leader at work for the past six years, I’m now going through a phase of introspection. Essentially, I’m trying to understand my own philosophy about people leadership so that I can clearly communicate it to the people that I support.

My most important realization is, people leadership is all about developing people. What I mean by this is, for everyone I’m supporting, I must carefully build a plan that provides them with the opportunities to stay motivated so that they can thrive. With this goal, once I wrote down my understanding of what motivates each of the people I support, it was quite eye opening to see the differences among people. Going through this process, I also realized how unprepared I was in terms of providing them with a clear career path to achieve their best.

If you’re interested, I’ve shared a template of the people development document here.

Name: ___
Current role: ___
Motivation: ___
Upcoming opportunity in the next three months:___
Upcoming opportunity in the next year:___

I consider this to be a living document as people often develop new interests and the opportunities at work change with time. But keeping a clear log of each individual’s career is a great way to establish and manage expectations. You can build this with the the individuals directly and update it when you meet for one-on-one feedbacks. As a lead, when you collaboratively build this, you empower them and build a trusting relationship as you both see how the motivations align with the work.

From the past 13 years of my time in the industry, working for 5 different companies, personally I’ve always felt a little under-informed about how my leaders planned a career development for me. Through my introspection of being a people leader, I realized I didn’t honestly appreciate the need for such clarity among the people I supported. So, I wanted to change it. And found the written document to be a simple yet surprisingly powerful tool to fill this void.

Now, if you’re a people leader, I’d recommend doing this exercise with your people. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

If you aren’t a people leader, you can write it down for yourself and ask your leader to collaborate on it. This way, when you have a one-on-one, you both will have the same reference document to focus on.

Ruby on Rails: Database Migration and Downtime

Recently, we had a production outage for a few minutes due a database migration on one of our Ruby on Rails apps. The deployment went fine through a few stages, but the problem only showed up at the last and the largest stage. This is exactly what happened during the deploy process.

  1. New code was deployed. Restart was pending, so the server was still running old code.
  2. Migrations ran.
  3. One migration removed a column that was used in the old code, but no longer used in the new code.
  4. The next migration was a data migration that inserted one row / user to a table. This was a very slow migration, taking 5+ minutes.
  5. The old code failed because it tried to use a column in the database that was no longer there. To make things worse, the column was referenced at all page loads within the app.
  6. The long running migration didn’t finish because it ran into a timeout.
  7. The servers weren’t restarted because the migration had failed. So, the new code wasn’t served at all.
  8. There was no automatic database rollback to restore the system into a good state with the old code.

The team was able to resolve the issues within the next 5 minutes, but it was the worst system outage we’ve seen in years. For anyone dealing with a large Ruby on Rails app, you can use the following safeguards to avoid such problems:

  1. Do not remove a column from the database while the current code is still using it. Do it at a later release.
  2. When a deployment fails at the migration step, ensure you have a rollback policy so that the system can be automatically restored to a known good state.
  3. Consider data migrations to be a performance problem and always test the migrations with relaistic load before production release.
  4. If possible, run your data migrations seprately from schema migrations so that you don’t incur deployment delays for optional new data.

What I Learned From Grad School About Innovation?

Rainy Window Src: Claudia Dea

Most problems are solved inefficiently. Innovation follows when a problem is researched first.

I spent a fair amount of time in grad school. First, sixteen months on my MSc, and then another forty eight months on my PhD program. Also, I worked as a pro software engineer for 20 hours/week during my MSc days and then full-time during the PhD days. It was quite an undertaking, but I survived and now claiming my bragging rights :-)

This post is about a general problem-solving approach that I internalized as the most valuable lesson from my grad school days. I hope you find it useful. I’ll try and explain the concept using a personal story. Here you go.

Recently, I was discussing plans for the near future with my wife, Shahana. She’s an engineer. In the past, Shahana worked in the telecom industry as a network planner for a few years. Then, she decided to take an extended maternity leave to stay with our two little kids, Shopoth and Shera. Now, honestly, she’s had enough and seriously contemplating a return to work. Except, she’s unsure about what career to choose that she’d really enjoy.

Given this vague problem of finding a new career, she felt lost for a while. As a true supportive husband, I decided to be her man and gave her an earful!

Silly jokes apart, we decided to set the context first by asking and answering the following questions:

  1. Why is she looking for a new career?
  2. Why not remain in the old career?
  3. What new career options exist?
  4. Where are the opportunities?
  5. Who knows more about those?
  6. How does she get a job in the preferred area?

After spending a few days of research, she developed a very clear understanding of the problem and the initial vagueness of the situation was mostly wiped clean resulting in a few clear constraints. From a job portal, Shahana then listed available job requirements from a number of open positions matching her criteria. After consolidation of the requirements, the gap was clear. It was obvious that she’d need to develop essential new skills to qualify for the jobs. As she acquires the new skills, she already knows the evaluation. If this doesn’t work, she can repeat the same process to either improve her chances or choose an alternate career path entirely.

This was a direct application of the problem-solving framework that I learned from grad school. Here’s a nerdy version of the framework:

  Given a problem
    1. Ask the Wh questions -> list constraints
    2. Research -> list existing solutions
    3. Is the problem already solved? -> If yes, stop
    4. Innovate, fill in the gaps.
    5. Evaluate

In real life, most problems are deceptive. We think we already know the best solution based on our past experience and go straight to #4 leaving all other parts out. Even if going straight to #4 is actually a wise move, it only becomes an innovation with a tiny impact, as it doesn’t become available at step 3 for others to leverage.

A large number of problems can be solved at step 3, by leveraging a solution or a mix of multiple solutions that already exist. Even when problems get past step 3, it’s highly likely that the gap is smaller than the extent of the whole problem. So, an innovation can focus only on solving the gap, which offers speed and intelligent reuse.

This post is so prosaic already. But if you’re still with me, I’ll make it even more textbook like by giving you a couple of practice problems. Go ahead and apply my 5-step problem solving approach:

  1. Jane is a musician, a prodigy so to speak. She’s been invited to talk about music as a therapy. She’s not good at speaking, but this is a big opportunity. What does she do?
  2. Mike is a young startup CEO. He’s very good at business and technology. He needs a lawyer to take care of the legal matters. How does he hire the best lawyer possible?

Headless CI

Past few months at work we’re trying to revamp our CI infra. This has been a migration from a Jenkins cluster to GoCD. This post is a result of my frustrations with the state of CI in the age of Git/GitHub.

With Pull Requests, or a form of pre-merge review process, it’s common to leverage a few automated checks alongside our human peers to remove potentially breaking changes from being merged into the repo. These changes typically require a CI server and often multiple CI jobs/pipelines to check test run / coverage results, linting, or any other policy that can be automatically enforced.

This is where you need to integrate your GitHub/what have you with your GoCD or the likes. And it’s a time consuming task for any complicated project. You essentially, setup pipelines that are somewhat duplicate to be executed pre and post merge. The more I think about, the more it feels like the whole CI process should be a headless one, and deeply embedded within the code repo. This would save unneccessary hassles such as setting up user accounts / notifications across multiple systems, navigating between web interfaces to see important logs when things fail etc.

I like the direction GitLab is taking. They have made CI part of GitLab UI so you can see the code and its build status in the same place. I’d like other CI environments to do the same, or at least be a little app/plugin that you can add on top of GitHub - to blend within the GitHub experience such that it doesn’t feel like a foreign object.

The PhD Project

Finally, I defended my PhD thesis yesterday. Family, friends, and colleagues are all sending their wishes, and it feels great to have crossed this milestone.

To be honest, deep inside, I carry a sad and guilty feeling, which at times overshadows the feeling of acomplishment. This phenomenon is hard to write about, but I wanted to give it a try anyway.

So, it was 2012. Life was good. I got promoted to Senior Consultant at ThoughtWorks and Shahana got a job almost immediately following the completion of her grad school. We spent an amazing vacation to end the year 2011, and the summer of 2012 was full of weekend trips to all the beautiful touristy places. That summer we also found that we were gonna be first time parents. It was an exciting time.

Along came fall. It started getting cold and wintery in Calgary. Both of us would be home by 5:30 PM, and would look for things to do to keep busy till bed time, which is about midnight. With slippery and often icy sidewalk, going for walks oudoors would mean a serious risk for the soon-to-be mom. So, we mostly stayed indoors. We were naive, and didn’t quite learn to enjoy the serenity of the “nothing to do” time. So, in one of such evenings, out of sheer boredom, I decided to shoot an email to my then ex-supervisor asking if he could meet to discuss potentially a part-time PhD admission for me.

He wrote back and we meet next week. He was quick to accept that request and also ensured that he’d be able to pay my tuition and expences as a scholarship, if required, for the full four years. I discussed this with Shahana and we decided to take this opportunity. Officially, the program would start in Fall 2013, about 5 months after the due date of our first born.

This is going to be a long read. But I’m writing it while it’s fresh in my memory from this overwhelmingly emotional time that I’m going through since the exam yesterday. This write up is an attempt to dump the different incidents that are showing up like storms in my mind at this time. I think it’s written for myself, more than anything. But I appologize if you’re reading this, since it’s a long format story, the format that most people don’t like to read online.

Back to the story, even though the program officially started in Fall 2013, I actually started working on my research right after we had our meeting. The first sub-project was to run a literature review on the area of interest for the PhD. This would give me a head-start in terms of positioning my research a whole year before enrolling officially. And I thought, I’d also get a feeling about enrolling into a PhD that’d help to “fail fast”, essentially I could call it a “quit” if I didn’t like the work before enrolling. Also, I switeched my job to join SourceFire, now part of Cisco, because the traveling projects with ThoughtWorks weren’t working for me anymore. I wanted to be with my wife, and international travels were screwing up with my Canadian immigration and citizenship requirements.

Life was still quite easy till the April of 2013. Then, we had our first born and it changed upside down. I think like most other first time parents, we had little idea about how much work it is to raise a little child on your own without substantial family support. To make things a little more challenging, the deadline for the first paper I wrote was about two weeks after Shopoth was born. In that two week, we barely got any sleep. But Shahana was adament, and let me take the time away to complete the paper on time. It felt good to be able to submit the paper. We both felt that it was doable.

Fast forward about a month. So, Shopoth is about 7 weeks old. My mother had left after helping us with the first few weeks of Shopoth’s life. We , the three of us, went for a walk for the first time around the beautiful tree-laden neighborhood of the varsity community in Calgary. I recall precisely, it was a beautiful early summer day. We just crossed a playground and turned left on a corner. My phone beeped signaling an email notification about the paper I submitted. It had this:

We regret to inform you that your submission titled …has not been accepted…

I felt sweaty, and wanted to keep it to myself. I could only do so for a few hours, and then shared this with Shahana. She was still recovering from the c-section, and was under a lot of stress due to the sudden changes in her life. I remember, she was saying only positive things about it and tried to encourage me to carry on.

As it happens, I moved on and decided to get into the PhD program anyway. During this year, I also got quite a bit engaged with things at the new job and started taking more responsibilities from a leadership perspective. To complete the course requirements, I’d have to complete at least three graduate courses, and transfer the credits from one of the courses I did while doing my MBA before coming to Canada.

On Reference Checks: Don’ts

Most people eventually come across a time when they’d need to provide names of colleagues as references while applying for a new job. The referees are often involved in the last stage of the hiring process, when the employer is generally satisfied that the candidate is a potential hire. At this stage, the employer expects to find a few things:

  1. Verification of facts. The employer wants to confirm the validity of the information such as the role, responsibilities, and achievements provided by the candidate about their past experience.
  2. Qualitative feedback. The employer wants to understand the “cultural fitness” aspect of the candidate by asking questions related to the individual’s interaction and collaboration skills.

While these are valid goals, I personally find the practice of using references to achieve these goals to be a rather flawed one. Here’s why:

  1. References aren’t replacements for interviews. As an employer, the responsibility is on the employer to be smart enough to verify that the skills and experiences as advertised by a candidate’s resume reflect the reality. If the employer can’t do that with a reasonable amount of confidence, they’re likely to hire wrong candidates anyway.
  2. Likely outdated. If a candidate is currently employed, due to the secret nature of most job searches, they are unlikely to use one of their coworkers as the referee. As a result, the longer a candidate is employed by the most recent employer, the more outdated the references tend to get.
  3. Likely tampered. If a candidate wants to use a referee, they’d generally contact ahead of time with the referee. Even if they don’t contact, the candidates are likely to mention names of people that are almost certain to say good things about them. For any qualitative feedback, this setup limits the possibility of getting any negative traits of a candidate.
  4. Open to interpretation. Reference checks are often done over phone. Also, the person calling to check the reference often hasn’t met the candidate during the interview steps. This creates a double-blindness of sort. So, anything said during the reference check process suffers from possibilities of information gap.

In my opinion, if reference checks are used, they should only be used to verify factual information. That too, should be done keeping in mind that the information may be outdated, or intentionally biased.

So You Want to Be a Software Developer. Where to Start?

You didn’t go to college to study computer science and you have no background on computer programming. You’re not quite happy with your current job area, and looking forward to something more rewarding and exciting. You’ve heard software development is generally a good area and often times people without any prior software background can actually get a job. But where do you start?

First, you’re thinking in the right direction, and I can assure you that if you like making things and have a nack for problem-solving, you can learn the skills to become a programmer. Now, let me share a path forward from here:

  1. Take an online course and learn a programming language. I’d suggest learning the programming language Ruby, using the courses offered by CodeSchool

  2. Build a demo application. Here’s an idea: Make an app for tracking personal expenses so that you can enter all your expenses and see reports about your expenses on a weekly / bi-weekly / monthly basis by type of expense such as food, transportation, accommodation, utility etc.

  3. Publish the application to the internet. Use Heroku to pubish your app to the internet and use it for yourself. When things don’t work as expected, fix bugs or extend the application to better serve your needs.

I’d say spend about 6 months on the steps 1-3. Once you’ve an application that you’re somewhat proud to show to your friends or prospective employees, it’s a sign that you’re progessing. But don’t apply for jobs just yet. I’d suggest spending another 6 months to learn a few more fundamental programming topics:

  1. Algorithms: Take an online course on basic algorithms to understand the different types of algorithmic approaches that can be used to solve known problems.
  2. Data structures: Take an online course on data structures since you’ll need to use them on a daily basis and this is one of those topics where it’ll be hard to learn on the job from no prior background.
  3. Object oriented concepts: Take an online course to understand the fundamental concepts behind object oriented programming. It takes years to master the concepts, but taking a course will greatly help you to get the basics right.

If you spent a year of your free time (8-10 hours a week), you’ve now acquired the basics that will be required to find a job. Obviously, you can squeeze it in a much smaller time window if you dedicate more time and already have some background with math / computing skills. But at a mimimum, I think it’ll take six months for most people to get there.

Now, I’d suggest you to take two bootcamps. The bootcamps are great in two ways. First, you get to work with peers and immerse into building something. Second, you can judge yourself against the peers to understand where you stand against the pros and newbies. Take notes and get ready for a second bootcamp. This time, the idea is to understand if you’ve improved since the first bootcamp and able to perform better than the first time.

After the bootcamps, if you’re feeling positive, it’s time to start looking for jobs. Make sure to find a job that matches your skills and keep an open mind about accepting a job that may not pay top dollars yet. If you find a job, and you’ll, go ahead and take it. You’ll be learnig at a fast pace on the job, and if you’re good, you’ll be rewarded accordingly either on the current job or on a new job. The idea is to focus on learning on the job, but also off the job to learn topics that may not be of interest on the job.

If you followed this plan, I expect you to get your first job as a programmer in 1.5-2 years, and get profecient in 4 years. Prepare accordingly. May be the 4 years is worth when you consider you’ll be happier and better rewarded for many more years to come.

Why Do You Want This New Job?

No matter which side of the table you’ve sat during interviews, you’ve probably heard this question: ‘Why do you want this new job?’

In the recent past, I’ve interviewed a few candidates and heard the following answers so far:

  1. I’m not learning much on the current job after it’s been 2-4 years.
  2. I’m looking for something that offers better work-life balance.
  3. I’m not really looking for a job. The recruiters got in touch and I thought I’d discuss.
  4. I’m looking for more challenging work.

All of the above are valid answers. I think there’s another perfectly valid answer that candidates seldom mention probably due to the gravity of the interview room situation. I’ve interviewed over a hundred candidates across different companies and am yet to find anyone that mentions: I am not happy with my current salary and benefits compared to my skills

Back to topic of answers. So, when someone answers that they are not learning new things on the job, obviously, you’d be curios to know why and how they have tried to change things. Unfortunately, most candidates simply mention that they are doing repeat work and there’s not much to learn doing the same thing over and over again. This is where I start feeling a little uneasy. However, I understand that it’s a true statement. If you’re in a similar situation, here’s some suggestion: read books, and write code based on what you’ve read. Then, you can tell a much convincing story that, I’ve forced myself to learn new things and here’s some proof, but I really want to apply the newly learned skills outside the scope of the “hello world” skills.

About work-life balance, I totally hear you. And if your current job doesn’t suit what you need out of your life, it’s a perfectly valid reason to look for new opportunities. However, make sure you’re able to clearly set the expectation with your potential employer about what work-life balance means for you. For example, if you can’t work over 40 hours a week, or must work from home one-two days a week, it’s best to discuss this even before an interview starts to ensure you’re a good match with the employer.

If you showed up at in interview just because a recruiter got in touch, I’d say introspect first. It’s possible that on our subconcious mind you have expectations that the potential of the new job offers you something that you don’t get at the current job. So, instead of a passive asnwer that the you simply acted based on the recruiter’s invite, it’s much convincing to see if you can lay down one or two things that you expect from the new job that you don’t get at the current job.

About looking for more challenge, it sounds like a cliche unless you can share examples of work that is of challenging to you. May be you like the challenge of using more complicated algorithms, may be you like dealing with a lot of data, may be you like supporting production emergencies, but there’s gotta be something that you can explicitly mention as challenging. It helps employers to understand if they’re able to provide you with enough challenge on the job.

Finally, if you’re looking for a new job because the current job isn’t paying upto the level of your skills and contributions, make sure to communicate it clearly as well. With salaries and benefits, I find it much easier to work with people that know the actual $ figure that’ll make them happy instead of beating around the bush to create confusions all around. Just be confident and tell what makes you happy. If the employer can afford it, most likely they’ll want to get you onboard as a happy employee. If they can’t afford it, they’ll do their best. The key here is to be explicit about what you want and be sure and confident about it.

In a nutshell, when you walk into an interview it’s yours to lose. The potential employer is investing their time and resources and would rather have you hired than having to interview other candidates. As long as you are able to justify why you want the new job, they’ll be quite accommodating.

2017 and Beyond

2017 will be the year to get closer to my PhD defense, and spending my time with family and dear ones. It means a stricter control on the daily use of social media. That’s pretty much it.

I’ll sharpen my focus on events and matters that I can influence with the aim to get better at achieving the most within my limited circle of influence. This is a fairly small circle; myself, family, team at work, and a handful of friends.

Wishing everyone a happy new year.