Frontend/Backend Team Collaboration with Sam Joseph
Sam joins the panelists to talk about frontend and backend team collaboration.
Sam joins the panelists to talk about frontend and backend team collaboration.
Sam Joseph is a CoFounder of AgileVentures, a charity that helps groups of volunteers gather online to develop open source solutions for other charities all around the world. Sam’s been mucking about with computers since the early 80s and followed the traditional education system through to a PhD in Neural Nets. Next he went all industry, researching mobile agents at Toshiba in Japan, going freelance and then swung back to academia to research peer to peer system and collaborative systems. He now spends the majority of his time trying to make AgileVentures a sustainable charity enterprise, with occasional moonlighting as a contract programmer. Check out his blog at nonprofits.agileventures.org.
Please join us in these conversations! If you or someone you know would be a perfect guest, please get in touch with us at email@example.com. Our goal is to get people thinking on the platform level which includes tooling, internalization, state management, routing, upgrade, and the data layer.
This show was produced by Mandy Moore, aka @therubyrep of DevReps, LLC.
CHARLES: Welcome to The Frontside Podcast, the place where we talk about user interfaces and everything that you need to know to build it right. My name is Charles Lowell, a developer here at the Frontside. With today also is TARAS: Mankovski.
TARAS:: Hello, hello.
CHARLES: Hey, TARAS:. Today we're going to be continuing our theme when we think about UI platforms and web platforms, continuing the theme of collaboration and with us to talk about this is Sam Joseph. Welcome, Sam.
SAM: Hi, thanks for having me.
CHARLES: We've already talked a great deal about how the way in which your team collaborates and the communication that happens between your team and between the different pieces of software, your system, form one of the pillars of the platform that you can't just take lightly. You need to actually be intentful about that. I was thinking we could kind of start today's discussion, kind of talking about some of those collaborations.
One that we've probably all encountered, which is usually teams will be split into people who are focused on frontend, people who are focused on backend systems, kind of the services that make sure that all of the nodes that are running on our laptops and our desktops and stuff are running smoothly and error-free and obviously, those two groups of people can sometimes arrive with different sets of priorities and how do we resolve those priorities to make sure that that communication flows freely.
TARAS:: What's interesting about these frontend and the backend teams is that our users are not seeing that separation. They only see one thing. They only touch one thing. They actually see as one group but there's tends of be this kind of split between the frontend and the backend. It's kind of interesting that how the user get into this.
SAM: Yeah. Obviously in some teams, there's a very clear cut distinction between people at the backend and working with the components that are serving JSON over the API and there are some people who are very, very focused on the frontend and drilling CSS and a number of bits and pieces or even just staying explicitly on the design or UX design and there's a mythical full stack developer who is up and down the platform. It doesn't run exactly in parallel but there is this key thing which is almost how much sympathy or empathy can you have for another person who is not you, trying to use something that you set up.
If there was a direct parallel, you'd say, "Obviously, all people who will be working on the frontend are more of that sort of person and perhaps, the people on the backend are not so much that sort of person," but actually, I think you can have people who are doing backend stuff and they're designing API is very, very thoughtfully or the kind of people that consumes those APIs and sometimes, you can have people who are very, very focused on the design and the aesthetics when not necessarily so plugged into how will someone else use this, how will it fits into their lifestyle, which might be very different from my own, so that's maybe another axis, if you know what I mean apart from this sort of pure technical [inaudible]. Does that makes any sense?
TARAS:: Yeah. What's interesting is that everyone is trying to do a great job. Everyone is setting out to do something really good. What people's way of expressing good might be different, so if someone could be really focused on the quality of their code like they want to do their version of doing a really, really good job is doing the best code they could write. Sometimes that doesn't necessarily equate to the best user experience. I think everyone that I've met -- engineers who are writing code, almost everyone that I know is trying to do a really good job. If everyone is doing a good job, it doesn't necessarily always equate to the best user experience.
CHARLES: I think we had a reference that everyone wants to make sure that their system is of the highest quality possible but quality in of itself is not an absolute value. It's relative. In other words, a good definition of quality is how well a system is fit to a purpose. If it fits very well to that purpose, then we say it's of high quality but if it fits very poorly to a particular purpose, then we say, "This is a system of low quality," but what constitutes something of high quality is relative to the purpose. The question is, what is the purpose of writing the frontend system? What is the purpose of writing the backend system? So it seems to me you're going to have a lot of dissonance if the purpose is divergent but if they both share the same purpose, then that is kind of standard quality on both sides. Does that make sense?
SAM: That makes sense and what even more makes it tricky is that actually, purposes can evolve over time and so the thing with the frontend that needed to do with the business today is different tomorrow and the day after. The trick then is sort of the frontend and the backend, as people try to do a great their job, there's this question of how far ahead are we looking so you can talk about important things like sort of asking close modification about [inaudible] extension and there's a [inaudible] of different coding heuristics as best practice that say, you should kind of go in this direction.
Sometimes, that will be the hill they want to die on. It's like, "This code needs to be this way because of this thing," and the idea is that it's sort of future-proofing them but I think the messy reality is that sometimes, the thing that you put in place to future-proof, the whole system gets canned. In two weeks, the business changes and what have you, so the extra effort that you are pushing in on one day to protect yourself against changes in the future actually gets lost and perhaps, if only you'd be able to deliver a shortcut pack, this one feature that that will got the next line of funding in, either one advocates cutting corners but... you know what I mean? Like --?
CHARLES: Yeah, absolutely. I just wanted to chime in and vehemently agree with you that the purpose can change radically, especially if you're in an evolved environment. What constitutes the good code or the good quality solution can vary just as radically because it needs to fit that purpose.
TARAS:: When we talk about frontend and the backend, it seems there's this relationship, which is kind of positional like there's the frontend and then there's the backend. One is in sequence from front to back. It's the direction with the frontend. It's closer maybe to the user where the backend is not. But I think in practice, it's probably more like the left and the right hand where when you have to do two things together, you actually need to do two things to coordinate together.
What you describe about and this is I think where taking shortcuts sometimes can actually be a good thing is that if you say, "I'm going to spend the next few weeks on a backend and doing this specific thing," and then you find out that 10 days into the iteration that it doesn't fit, the better approach to synchronize would be to stop the action and realign. But if you persevere, then you might overstep and you actually be out of sync. It makes me think that the art of creating cohesive organizations from development perspective is to create context where the two kind of work in synergy together. I think that's where a good tooling that allows its synergy to exist. I think that's a lot of the work of actually creating systems where the user experience is kind of cohesive and integrated.
CHARLES: Actually, there was something that you just mentioned in there but it's actually a little nugget that I'm curious to explore and that is if you're 10 days in to like a 14-day piece of work and you realize that it isn't right and it doesn't fit with the whole, right action is to throw it away. I feel like software organizations and this might be a little bit off topic but it's something that really is interesting to me, so please indulge me. I feel like we see the product being the kind of the code output, even in Agile environments and there is an aversion to throwing away code that has been written.
There's the, I would say, incentive is to go ahead and persevere because developer time is so expensive. These are days out of people lives, so they've already invested 10 days. Why not just have four more days just so you have it. When in fact, you actually have more if you just throw that work in the trash because it's an obstruction that's not needed. It's a piece of weight. It's actually something that you now are going to own and it's actually going to be cheaper in the long run and it can be more beneficial to your organization to not own it.
Do you all see that happen kind of play out where people become attached to software that they've invested and will make the decision to hold on to it? Say, we'll spend two more days to complete it, even though it's the wrong thing, like identifying which things need to be thrown away? I feel like we don't actually do that very aggressively -- to say, "You know what? We need to not complete this work."
SAM: I think that is a really tricky one because I think whatever people might say, when you spend time working on something, you become emotionally attached to it. I would say strongly that how logical or rational or whatever sort of a person you are, my experience is being that people working on things want to see them used.
I think in a situation with version control where you can keep things on a branch, they can be useful explorations, things don't have to be thrown away in their entirety. Our charity is doing work for the National Health Service in the UK where there's a lot of employees in Europe and I've noticed the user interface that we're supplying them and I was suggesting some sort of minor tweaks and one of the developers has sort of run with the entire, big, advanced search feature that partially solves the problem but brings in a lot of other bits and pieces. He does some good work there. It's a great work but I think he kind of ran further than I was expecting down that line and I think we have now found a much simpler solution that rather than bringing an entire cabinet, it's a little shading off the side of the existing one.
But I think that doesn't have to be a loss and I was reassuring him that the work was valuable and that there is interesting learnings there and potentially, we might use it in the future version of the project and now of course, the way that stuff is moving on, just how it's going to branch, it doesn't mean you can then sort of magically lose some of the work.
In that case of doing this 10 days out of 14 and so on, the real question is can you get any value from switching somebody that fast? If they spent 10 days in and they realized they don't need that thing, it's like can you switch them quickly onto something else where they'll do four days or might they as well, just finish up there and leave that on a branch. That's a pull request that gets closed and it's there to go back to. That's kind of depends team by team about how quickly you can repurpose people missed rigs, if you know what I mean.
CHARLES: I absolutely agree but the key thing is leaving it on a branch and not integrating it into production, like not actually deploying it because I feel like when we see a feature, it's like we've got to get this thing done and it's done and we're just going to get it in versus now that we've learned how to do this, let's put that on a branch and let's rewrite it and let's take a different approach, rather than just being married to the idea that we're going to get it right the first time or that now is the time for this feature because we understand the complexity of what it actually takes. It is a tricky question. I'm wondering if our processes don't include enough implicit experimentation. We talked a little bit about this on a prior podcast that if they don't include some incentive to not deploy features just because you have them.
TARAS:: I think from a business perspective, there's not a lot of model to evaluate a certain thing. We don't have really any effective way of evaluating learning. You can measure code by the numbers of lines of code that somebody wrote and how much of code was shipped but you can't really evaluate how much was learned and how much was persisted.
I think a lot of this work around supporting effective collaboration is in building a cumulative systems of knowledge like why is a good Git history useful is because it has a built in mechanism for understanding history. It gives you a way to return back to time in your project and understand the context of that specific change and I think this is something that really good teams do this really well. They will respect this because when it's necessary, it is valuable to have this. When you don't have it and you are a year into the project and something happened and then, you are using the only thing you have, which is your troubleshooting skills or you are trying to figure something, as supposed to going back and relying on that history, on that knowledge that's built into the system, what I'm trying to get to is there is an element that is inherent to our development process, which is we don't have a way to quantify it. We have no way to really evaluate it. I think this is the problem that makes it difficult to throw away work because you can measure the amount of time they'll spend but you can't measure the amount of learning that was acquired.
CHARLES: Right. Thatís true.
SAM: I think if you have a positive team environment, if you have your team that is stable in there -- your contacts are coming in, the money is there, everybody is there and you've got the team, you don't necessarily be able to measure the learning because the output of the team will be good. They're kind of doing that in the background but I think individual comments are not going to want to pay for learning experience. It's certainly not at the rate of software developer's cost.
Although, the throwing-aways, if you're familiar with the [inaudible] book, which I think is a [inaudible] is the author, you know, build one, to throw away, you will anyway. We have a frontend mob that we run weekly doing frontend stuff and CSS and so on and we've done like it's a mockup for the client and there's this question about in my [inaudible] and so Iím saying to other developers there, "Let's not get too attached to this. We may need to throw it away and it will be a great learning to sort of restart on that." The [inaudible] to look quite nicely and the client might get attached to it. They want to ship it and I'm like, "Well, actually there's a lot of other stuff that needs to happen," and so, it's a minefield. It really, really is.
TARAS:: I think some of the business relationships that we have to this kind of client consulting company relationship, that relationship might not always create the fit to purpose team for specific challenge. You can have a company that has a lot of employees but their team and their team dynamics might not be fit to purpose to the problem they're trying to solve. If you're building a platform over a long time, you want to be creating that space where that learning gets accumulated over time. It doesn't matter what necessarily the relationship is between the companies that are participating in this process. I think what matter is what are you producing as a result.
If you're working together with people from different companies and they're working together and they're building this kind of an environment where you can collaboratively build things together and then people learning from the output and that knowledge is being carried over and people are being able to stack their knowledge continuously over time, if you're creating that environment and you're building a large platform for example, then you are creating a build to purpose kind of technology team to fit what you're looking to accomplish and that'll include consulting companies. I think those team, they're kind of secondary but I think it's just [inaudible] to that. It's like building a quality development organization to fit the purpose of building whatever it is that you're trying to build. If you're building something small, you might have a small team that'll able to build that effectively. If you have something big, you could have a big team that is building that effectively but building that team in a way that is appropriate to what you're trying to accomplish, I think that's the real challenge that company struggles to do.
CHARLES: Yeah. In the context of these real teams, I guess what can you put in place given that you have backend teams, frontend teams and each one of these needs to be specialized. This is kind of the power of the way that people work is that we're allowed to specialize and there's power in specialization. You can have someone who can be super focused on making sure that you have these high throughput backend systems that are resilient and fault tolerant and all these wonderful things, so that they don't necessarily have to have the entire context of the system that they're working on inside their head at a given time and the same thing someone working on CSS or working on a frontend system architecture, which has grown to be a very complex problem domain in its own right.
But these teams can be working in a context with a purpose is whip-lashing around and changing quite drastically and so, how do you then keep that in sync? Because we've identified purpose as being actually something that's quite a dynamic value. How do you keep these teams keyed in and focused and so, that they're kind of locked in on that similar purpose of they're going to be adapting the systems for work that they're responsible for and specialties that they're responsible for to match that?
SAM: It's a good question and I have my own bias view there --
CHARLES: I would love to hear it.
SAM: I can't bear working on things where I don't understand in great detail how that end user has experienced or what is the effect overall that it's trying to be achieved. You know, I've been working in boards between the industry and the charity for like 30 years and I know people are commenting like, "You were the person who wants to understand everything."
I think there were some people who are maybe quite satisfied who get ticket off the general board or what have you and work on that thing and if the API specs have filled in, so that's it. Go home and they weren't losing a sleep over it. But I think if youíre going to be dealing with these changes and sympathetic that the changes is coming down the path, I think you need to have some degree of empathy with the people who are driving the changes. Do you know what I mean?
CHARLES: Oh, absolutely yeah.
SAM: You know, as we've mentioned already, I think people get attached to what they build and I don't think you can do anything about that. They will get attached to what they build.
CHARLES: Yeah, we've all experienced it. It's so true. It's impossible to [inaudible].
SAM: Yeah. We can try and target it but it's sort of part of our nature. I think there are sort of the tools of the design sprint, of the design jam, of these sorts of things where if you can build to some level is obviously that it can't be shipped but can actually tease out the needs of the user, the designs sprint, the Google team, they have an example with kind of like this robot for hotels where it's like the whole thing is they can have robots that can deliver toothpaste to your door if you run out of toothpaste. In this design, obviously, that would be a huge undertaking to make that as a sort of our production system but they used like a remote control of a robot to simulate all of the key touch points when the client of that hotel, will actually interacts with that robot.
I think the same is true when you're building these systems if you can, again going to touch back on we don't fit a code in that way that I think an ever better thing is not be building the code in the first place and to build an almost a non-code system and then, maybe some of the backend are not going to be interested in the results of what people have learned through this kind of user experience trial before they [inaudible] forever but I think it's seeing other people try to use the end system that puts you in place where you can be empathetic.
I argue for the bias point of view that I think people on the backend of Netflix, trying to optimizing the streams in that or the other, they need to spend some time watching Netflix or at least watching the comedy of Netflix in order to empathize of how their work relates to the end experience and then, when those end experience needs changed, it's important for them to make change on the backend. Do you know what I mean?
CHARLES: Right, exactly. They have to watch through that kind of glass window where they can actually help the person. They can't give them any information. The only levers of control they have is through their own work, making the thing changes that they need to make on the backend, so that one of those users is going to have a good user experience.
This idea reminds me of something which I believe is the case at Heroku where they rotate everybody in the company through pager duty, which I think is kind of a brilliant idea where the entire team is responsible for providing technical support to the end users. When a problem arises, you get to understand what it's like to be someone who's trying to use the system. You get to exposed to the satisfaction, whether an issue was resolved or when it's working correctly or your pager is quiet for your entire shift but you can also get exposed to the frustration that you're engendering in the users if something doesn't go quite according to plan.
SAM: Yeah. I'm not [inaudible].
TARAS:: There is movement in this direction because there is actually a term that has been floating around. It's like a product engineer. It's someone who thinks about the product. These kind of people tend to have the highest value in Silicon Valley as someone who thinks about the product as the outcomes supposed to their code as the outcome. Even in the Agile space, there seems to be movement in that direction because I think one of the challenges, like to do that, you have to understand how you fit into the bigger picture. I could see it being really difficult. Imagine if you're working at a bank or something and being pager duty at a bank would be impossible, simply because their organization is either too big or too sensitive.
The way that their company is dealing with that is they have these group of people where you have a product manager working closely with the frontend engineer and the backend engineer so there's this exchange that is happening where people get to understand the consequences of their actions a little bit more. They understand how things fit together. There is definitely a movement happening in that direction that I think just the more, the better because one of the big differences now is the things that we make are very palatable to the users and the quality of the user experience that users are now expecting is much higher than they were in the past. I think the world is changing.
CHARLES: Yeah. We mentioned this when we were talking before the show but going to the University of Michigan as I did, I was in school with a bunch of mechanical engineers. Their goal was to go work for auto companies: Chevrolet and Ford and everything like that but their mindset was very much, I think the product engineering mindset. All of them loved cars and wanted to be part of building the coolest, most comfortable, most responsive cars. For whatever definition of a good car -- there are a lot of them -- they wanted to design good cars but they were into cars and they were into the experience of driving a car, so what's the equivalent then of that product engineer in software?
I think that every conversation that I had with any of the mechanical engineers who were going into the auto industry, I'm sure there are some of them that were out there but it wasn't about carburetors or whatever. They really wanted to just get into the building of cars. In some aspects, I'm sure they all integrated in some way or another but it was a group that was very focused on that outcome.
SAM: In the UK, I'm hearing this term, 'service designer' a lot that's coming up. Are saying that, Charles, you get the feeling that even getting into software, I'm not so excited about using their own? Like the car, I want this amazing car and then I can drive the car and I'll experience the car --?
CHARLES: Right and other people will experience the car that I've helped design.
SAM: Right and in some way, in software, it's almost like the software itself there's this kind of mathematical beauty of its own and it's like always been more important than the other software heads around me like the software that I wrote. I mean, the user? At the conference and all the software guys love it, that's the key objective, isn't it? Yeah.
I work with a lot of learning developers who are rightly focused on wanting to improve their skills and wanting to level up in particular tech stacks that are the ones that will lead to jobs and the future and financial stability and so on but I kind of wish I could inculcate in them this desire that the user experience was the higher goal than which bit of code does this or the other.
Maybe, I'm being unfair to them when I say that. Coding is hard. There's a lot strange concepts to grasp than sort of grappling with those concepts -- how does this work or why does this work or should I use this function or should I use this method or what have you. I don't know. I think [inaudible] bit a wall when I'm sort of saying like, "Let's think about it through the user perspective, what does the user needs here." It feels like they want the safer answer of what's the correct solution here, how should this be refactored because you need a skinny controller or a fat model or whatever happens to be. I don't know if that's --
CHARLES: Right, like what's going to make my life easier, in a sense of if I'm going to be maintaining this code and it's important. It's very important. You want to be happy in your job, you want to be happy in your work and so, you want to have the skinny control or the fat model because it's going to lower the risk of pain in your future, supposedly. I definitely understand but that can't be the only incentive. I think it's what I'm hearing.
The thought just occurred to me, I actually don't know that much about game development. I know the game industry is certainly has got its problems and I don't know much about the development culture inside the game industry. I do wonder what it's like because it does seem to be somewhat analogous to something like the car industry, where if you're a developer in the game industry, you're probably extremely focused on the user experience. You just have to be. It's so incredibly saturated and competitive for just eyeballs and thumb on controllers. Like I said, I don't really know anything about the game industry when it comes to development but I'm wondering if there's an analogy there.
SAM: Yeah. It sounds strong to me and as much of my cousin who works in the game industry and I sort of taught game programming and work through a lot of it. The game industry has got these sort of user testing experience baked in and it kind of like repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. There's this sort of constant cycle of doing that and in the somewhat wider software industry, in a certain extent, pay lip service to that.
CHARLES: The game industry, they live and die by that. The code lives and dies by how it actually plays with real users.
SAM: Yes and it feels like in the general world, there's a lot more user interfaces that they just sort of struggle on whatever market dynamics people need to use, these existing vested interest, these banks, these supermarkets and what have you. I guess the market is too big, almost. It's not covered enough but do we really want our industry to be so cutthroat? I don't know.
CHARLES: Yeah. We've kind of seen an example of a couple of industries: the car industry, the game industry which is kind of adjacent to where most software development happens but they have this concept of exhaustive user testing, kind of the pager duty if you will, where you get to experience that. So how do we, on our team and when I say our team, I mean anyone who happens to be listening, what's the equivalent of pager duty for the applications that we write? How can we plug ourselves into that cycle of user-ship so we can actually experience it in a real and repeatable way.
SAM: In the work that we're doing with the NHS, they have a similar program. There's a lot of people who are working purely death by desk jobs but they do have a framework for us to go and observe in the hospitals and emergency rooms and so on. I guess the 'how can we achieve that outside of those clients who have those framework in place,' it seems like maybe we need a version of the cycle where a different person gets to be the product owner and tries to represent what the users are experience each week.
I think almost though, it seems like we need more of that thing you mentioned, Charles which is like kind of being behind the one-way silvered mirror as some sort of framework that connects the loop between some of the individual developers are doing and their experience of how the users are seeing things. I think that's going to be difficult to introduce. Just to sort of back up a little bit with them, I see this kind of idea of Agile, which says, "Let's be using the software which is the thing that's kind of changing and evolving unless you already deployed and you are in the maintenance mode from the beginning and you're getting that thing out there so you have your one-week or two-week or three-week cycles where you keep on having touch points," and I think that's better than touching once every two years.
As malleable as modern software potentially is, it's too sticky. It's like you were saying Charles before with that deploying or whatever, these are all gyros and so, you kind of need a really good mechanism for mocking out interfaces and having users experience and there's a couple of [inaudible], vision and there's something else that's sophisticated systems on the UX space where you can put together sort of a simulation of your interface relatively cheaply and you can run these things and then have sort of video capture of the users interacting with the system.
I think the difficult part that we have in the software industry is we are in this thing, where there's not enough people wanting to be software developers, partly with I guess the cars and the games, is there's so many people want to be game designers that the industry can kind of set the terms but we're in this inverse situation here with software developers where software developers are so much in demand, they can kind of say, "Don't put too much pressure on me. I'll kind of like, I'll go off to different company."
You know, we kind of have to like herd the cats, as they say into allowing these high powered software developers to go in the direction as they want to go in and so, it may be difficult to impose something like that, where you're getting software developers to really experience the end user's pain.
I guess what one has to do is somehow, create a narrative to sell the excitement of the end user experience and the beautiful end user experience to software developers such that they're fully out of themselves and say, "Yes, I want to see how the users are using my software." Do you know what I mean?
TARAS:: Yeah. Because a lot of company had this process where there'll be a product manager, there'll be a designer, they'll design through mock ups and they'll just hand it over to developers to build. There could be some backend, some frontend. I think if you're doing that, there is no emotional engagement between the creators of the actual implementation and the people who are going to be using that.
One way to do that is to try to add more of this actual 'however you do it.' You know, introduce more of the personal experience of the users to go along with the actual mock ups so that people understand like, there's actually be a person on the other end that are going to experience this and create some kind of emotional engagement between these two end. How you do that, I think that's a big question but I think if the organization is simply just throwing designs over to development, that's where the part of the problem is and trying to --
CHARLES: Well, actually, that's a fantastic point because ultimately, we've talked about emotional engagement and attachment to the software being a liability but the reason it exists and the reason it's intrinsic to the way we do things is that's how things get built. We get emotional attachment to it. It's the impetus. It's the driving force. It's literally the emotive force causes us to go forth and do a thing. It's why we're going to do it as a good job.
Like you said TARAS:, if you just kind of throwing your tickets over the wall, there is no emotional engagement and so people will look for it wherever they can find it. In the absence of an emotional engagement, they will create their own which is good quality software that's 'clean' code because people need to find that meaning and purpose in their work. Maybe the answer is trying to really help them connect that emotional experience back to that purpose of the user experience, so that there is no vacuum to fill with kind of synthetic purpose, if you will.
SAM: That's a great point. The charity in AgileVentures that I run, when we get things right, that's the thing that happens in that. We go for transparency at open source. We have these regular cycles where the charity client is using the software in a Hangout with us, with the developers who work on these things and the developers whether they're in a Hangout Live, whether they're watching the video a week later, they see the charity end user struggle with the feature that volunteer developers have been working on and they make that attachments. It's more than just 'I want to learn and level up in this thing.' It's like 'I want to make this feature work for this end user' and we're very lucky to have these charities who allow us to do that level of transparency.
The difficulty often comes that I would see in our paid projects where I would love to be recording the key stakeholders using the system but for whatever political reason, you can't always get that. I think that process of actually connecting the developer with the person who using it and doing that reliably, so that they can have that empathy and then get that emotional connection. It's just tricky in the real world.
CHARLES: It's very hard. One thing that we've deployed on past projects, which I think has worked fairly well is kind of putting a moratorium on product owners writing stories or writing tickets and actually having the developers collaborate with the product owners to write the tickets. In other words, instead of kind of catching a ticket that's thrown over the wall, really making sure that they understand what is the context under which this thing is being developed and then almost as in a code review sense, having the product owner saying, "Actually, the reason we're doing it is this," and having a review process where the developer is actually creating the story in support from the product owner.
Because ultimately if they have that context, then coming up with the implementation is going to be much easier. It's really is about facilitating that upfront learning than being able to do the actual work. That's something but a lot of organizations are resistant to that because the product owners really want to say like, "No, I want it to go this way and I want to just hand this to a developer and I want them to do it."
It's kind of wrestling in control and saying, "You've got veto power over this. You're the editor but we really want to make sure that you're on same page with the developer." In cases where we have been able to kind of have product owners make that shift where the developers are owning the story, oh sorry, or the primary authors of the story and more of the code reviewers of the story, if you will, implementation just seems to go so much more smoothly.
The questions, the key points kind of come out of the front of the process and by the time you start actually working on the thing, the manager or the product owners has the confidence that the developer understands what is involved in making it work.
SAM: Getting that done, what one will say something as tricky to do, I think in the ideal world, you have more of the developers involved in the design sprints or the design jams. The logistics of it are you can't really afford to have all those developers in all of those soft meetings where they are coding away. That sounds a great medium there. I think there's various organizations that do sort of their kick offs where their stories are kind of if not code designed, then there's cooperative voting on the complexities of the stories and making sure that they have folks understand the stories that they're working on and there might have some very different organization that are going to have different constraints on how much time that the organization feels, the different people can be allowed to spent on different sorts of activities. It's sort of tricky, isn't it?
CHARLES: It is definitely tricky because any time that you allocate for people, that's the most expensive resource that you have, so you want to be smart about it.
SAM: Which comes back to that issue then again of repurposing people. If you've got that feature that you go over 10 days, can you say to that person, "Can I switch you over onto this other thing for four days?" Maybe logically, that would be a better outcome for the sprint but maybe emotionally, that person is so attached to that. They are not fighting that front.
The biggest trouble for me, I think over the last 30 years is I assumed that the logical stuff was tantamount. These things like the skinny controller and the fat model, we'd agreed on that that was correct and so, that's why I should pushed for, that's why I should fight for because it's the truth or whatever and actually, maybe I'll sling back around in another 30 years, you can choose your battles because the level of emotional pressure on people, then the whole thing just explodes and nothing gets done. You know what I mean?
TARAS:: Sam, I have experienced something very similar and I think about this all the time. It's just how many perfect things are perfectly acceptable to people in using a different lens when I think about technology because the more skilled you are, I think quite often, people become more pedantic about how they approach things but in practice, the more things that you see that are not written but you realize how really imperfect they are and how in many ways, they fit the world very well, people use it. It's being used by many people in its imperfect state, so there is something like this hole between perfect implementation and the role of this perfect implementation in the world that I think that duality is really interesting.
CHARLES: Yeah. There's a fantastic paper written by, I think it was Richard Garfield back in the late-90s or early 2000s called 'Less is More,' where he kind of talks about this exact tension and he calls it the MIT school of software and the Berkeley school of software and I think Garfield came from the MIT school but basically, the whole thing was saying the Berkeley School is actually right and the name of the paper is 'Worst is Better.' It's a really interesting essay but just talking about working things that are in people's hands will beat the best design every single time because those are the systems that get used and improved.
There's a lot more to it than that. He talks about this exact fundamental tension and obviously, no system exists on either one of those perfect poles -- the MIT school or the Berkeley school. I think what he was trying to point out is that exact fundamental tension that we're talking about, the quest for the 'correct solution' and the quest for a solution. I'm actually have to go and re-read it. I remember it being an intriguing paper.
SAM: I guess the thing that makes me think of is sort of related to philosophy value. I read recently about this, attachment to outcomes. I'm going to segue back but we've got this discussion in one of our teams about, this is sort of microservices versus monoliths and in reading this, I doubt microservices, which is actually pretty radical in some of its suggestions that they're talking about it in Greater Than Code Slack where it's sort of saying that actually, if you keep your microservices small enough, then a lot of the things like code quality become actually kind of irrelevant it sort of almost argues that a lot of the things that we like about the Agile and these things are our ceremonies that are only necessary because we trying to feed these monoliths.
I'm not saying it is true. Iím just saying it's a pretty radical position that itís taking and it certainly, captures the minds of some people in our organization. Some things that I've been trying to make some simple changes just to smooth off some of the edges of the platform that we're working with and I had this respect of like, "No, we can't just make those simultaneous. We need to move to microservices." They're great and it will be perfect and they will allow expansion and so on and my immediate reaction is sort of, "I'm glad we don't have to build microservices because [inaudible]. It's all about attachment to outcomes, so am I attached trying to automate part of my week that I think will have some positive goals in the future? No one's got a crystal ball. That's only a guess on my part.
If I've got some folks who are excited about doing this thing with microservices, maybe I should empower them in that and I should started a mobile microservices and we kind of playing with these set of framework and so on. It's interesting stuff as I'm working my way through the book. At the same time, while we've been doing that, I've actually delegated it to someone else to sort out this sort of thing and I've actually kind of addressed the problem what we would need the microservices for through a different mechanism but still, the microservices thing rolls on and I kind of think, "Well, is that all a complete waste?" But then actually maybe, in two years down the line, it will turn out and that will be a beautiful thing that will enable things.
The further that I go on, the more I say, "I just don't know," and actually, if I can detach myself from caring too much about the outcomes one way or the other, I think it's both long and enjoy myself but it's a tricky thing when you got to pay the rent and pay the bills and so on. I don't see any resolutions to that. I love people being able to use things and get stuff done. I'm so excited about that and I guess, I will keep pushing all of the developers that I'm with towards trying to have a better empathy or understanding of their end users because I think software is more fun when you're connected to the end people who are using that.
CHARLES: Absolutely. Microservices reminds me kind of the experience that we've had with the microstates library. Because we've kind of identified this one very small slice of a problem, a 'refactor,' it's basically a ground up rewrite. If you've got a library that is a couple of hundred lines of code but it presents a uniform API, then you can rewrite it internally. You can refactor it by doing a ground up rewrite and the cardinal rule or the cardinal sin is you're never supposed to do a rewrite.
SAM: Yes and that's the microservices that they're saying. It's like you should rewrite everything all the time, basically.
CHARLES: Exactly. You should always be rewriting it.
SAM: Yeah. Should be able to throw it away because it's a microservice and it can be rewritten in a week and if you're throwing one away, it's only a week worth of work and you can keep on moving away. It is an amazing idea.
CHARLES: I have to read that book. Anyhow, we're going to have you on again to explore --
SAM: Well, let's do another one on microservices. It was a great fun. Definitely, it's time to wrap up but I really appreciate you having me on the show and being able to discuss all these topics.
CHARLES: Fantastic and I can't wait to talk about microservices. This might be the impetus that I need to finally actually go learn about microservices in depth.
SAM: I'll recommend Richard Rodger's book, 'The Tao of Microservices.'
CHARLES: All right. Fantastic. Anything we should mention, any upcoming engagements or podcast that you're going to be on?
SAM: Iím always on the lookout for charities, developers, people who want to help, you can find us at AgileVentures.org. We're busy trying to help great causes. We're trying to help people learn about software development and getting involved in Agile and kind of like experience the real software in action, software development where you ideally interact with the end charity users and see how they're benefitting from the product. We love any support and help. You can get involved in that, if you want to give a little bit to open source and open development. We go for transparency. We have more mob programming sessions and scrum and meetings online/in-house every day, so just come and check out AgileVentures.org and maybe, see you [inaudible].
CHARLES: Yeah and if they wanted to say, reach out to you over email or Twitter, how would they get in touch?
SAM: It's Sam@AgileVentures.org and I am at @tansakuu on Twitter. Hit me on Twitter or just at Sam@AgileVentures.org.
CHARLES: All right. Well, fantastic. Thank you, Sam. Also, if you need any help with your frontend platform, you know where to get in touch with us. We're at @TheFrontside on Twitter or Info@Frontside.io. Thank you, TARAS:. Thank you, Sam and we will see everybody next time.
Thank you for listening. If you or someone you know has something to say about building user interfaces that simply must be heard, please get in touch with us. We can be found on Twitter at @TheFrontside or over just plain old email at Contact@Frontside.io. Thanks and see you next time.