2015 Year in Review

It’s that time of year again — time for a retrospective on how I did on my goals for the year. I had 5 main goals for 2015:

  • Job Hunting
  • Conferences
  • Blogging
  • Programming Language Design
  • Writing an Agile Book

Job Hunting

I got pretty lucky on this one. My main contract with Mercy got extended several times. Amos and I must have been doing a good job of keeping the customer happy. We even made it through a couple rounds of layoffs. I’m wrapping up the gig at Mercy now. I’m working one day a week there, as the project winds down.

I also started a new gig this month at CenturyLink. I’m working on a cloud development team. Our current project involves selling WordPress as a service. The manager had been courting me for most of the year. I’m excited about my new role; I’ll be writing about it in a blog post soon.

Conferences

I set a goal in 2014 to give my first conference talk. I accomplished that, giving an ambitious talk at RubyConf. I enjoyed having done that, and vowed to do more conference speaking.

I gave 3 conference talks in 2015. I gave a workshop on HTTP at RailsConf. I talked about immutable infrastructure at Madison+ Ruby. At RubyConf, I gave a talk on a micro-ORM I wrote. I also gave a lightning talk about Agile estimation (#noestimates).

I was an alternate speaker at Windy City Rails, but did not give my talk on Alternatives to ActiveRecord. I also went to Strange Loop, mainly to see several friends and acquaintances speak.

Blogging

I wrote 24 blog articles this year. That’s about one every other week. What really kept me going was participating in a writing pact. When the pact was going, I had a 75% blogging rate. That’s pretty good.

I’m not so sure about the quality of my blog writing though. I know that practicing writing is supposed to make you better. I know I wrote some really good articles over the past year, but I think I also wrote some articles that weren’t very good. I think sometimes the deadline has caused more harm than good. I’m not really sure what to do about that; perhaps just pushing on is the right answer.

Programming Language Design

I’ve taken a lot of notes on the design of my programming language. Any time I learn something interesting about another language, or come up with another idea, I write it down.

But I haven’t worked on the implementation. (I last worked on the implementation in 2014.) I should be experimenting with some ideas, implementing them to see how they work out. I’ve even kicked around the idea of starting with a Forth variant, just to get something working quickly.

I haven’t written any articles on my ideas this year either. My notes are pretty extensive, and it would be good to write some articles to help get my thoughts straight.

Writing an Agile Book

I’ve got some things to say about Agile, and want to write a book to express those ideas. I’ve made a start — I’ve got the chapters outlines, and have started on a few chapters. But I haven’t made as much progress as I’d like to. I shared what I’ve got with Amos, and he showed some interest in pairing with me on the writing. Hopefully we’ll work on it together in 2016 and publish it.

Other

There were a few other accomplishments that weren’t explicitly on my list, but I’d like to call attention to.

I’ve continued participating on the This Agile Life podcast. I was in 12 of the 33 episodes that were recorded in 2015. I hope to participate in more in 2016. We’re considering scheduling a standard recording night each week, which might help us record more regularly.

I recently took over as maintainer of Virtus, a library to declare attributes for Ruby model classes. I haven’t done a lot yet, since I’ve been busy with travel, vacation, and holidays. But I hope to catch up with all the pending pull requests and issues in the next month or so.

The accomplishment I’m most proud of is mentoring for the Roy Clay Sr. Tech Impact program. This is a program begun as a result of the Ferguson protest movement. We’re helping teach kids (from 14 to 25) web design and development. My personal goal was to give these kids an opportunity that they would not have otherwise had. But it turned out that some of them have actually started a business building web sites for small companies. I’m so proud of the progress they’ve made in such a short time; it’s a challenging program.

Conclusion

I’m pretty happy with my accomplishments this year. I made at least some progress on each of the goals I set. I’ve been thinking about my goals for next year; I’ll write that as a separate blog article next week.

Face Your Fears

I’ve always been someone who faces my fears.

I have a moderate case of arachnophobia. I don’t run away when I see a spider, but it creeps my out when one is crawling on me. When I was in college, I decided to buy a tarantula to attempt to get over my irrational fear of spiders. I thought I’d be able to get more comfortable with the tarantula over time, eventually to the point of letting it crawl on my arm. It didn’t work. Although I did find that my fear of tarantulas is rational — I got a terrible case of hives just from touching the urticating hairs that fell off into its water sponge.

Last week, I was on vacation in Mexico. One of the excursions we took involved jumping in the water a lot. I’m not a strong swimmer — mostly because I have a hard time closing my nose; I hold my nose when I jump in. We zip-lined into the water a lot. At one point, there was a cliff to dive into the water from. It was about 15 feet above the water. It didn’t look so far down before jumping. But it felt like a really long way down the first time I jumped from it. It was pretty scary for me. So I did it a second time. There wasn’t any peer pressure to jump a second time. I literally jumped a second time specifically because I was scared.

Fear is a weird thing. Fear is there to protect us. But it’s there to protect us from the dangers of the African savannah. Most of the things our fears protect us from don’t exist in our everyday modern lives. So maybe we should work to gain a better understanding of how our fears work, to figure out when to pay attention to them and when to ignore them.

Fortunately, our brain has a good mechanism to help us do this. Our brains basically have 2 main processing systems. The first one is for quick reactions. This one involves things that are nearly reflexes. Fear is in this system. The second system is our analytical reasoning system. This system takes longer to process, but is able to take on more information.

Whenever the situation allows us time for both systems to work, we need to listen to them both. We need to listen to our fears, because they’re there for a reason. But that reason might not pertain to our situation. So we need to realize that, and let the slow analytical system determine if we should ignore our fears.

If we don’t allow both systems to work, we’re not taking full advantage of our brains; we’re not taking full advantage of the situations that life is presenting to us.

Encouragement

I’ve been on vacation the past week, in Cozumel, Mexico. One day, we went on an excursion called Xenotes. A cenote (say-NO-tay) is a sinkhole filled with fresh water. (The “X” is to give it a more Mayan-sounding trademarkable name.) We had a lot of fun swimming, kayaking, and zip-lining. A bilingual tour guide led our group, which consisted of people from across the US and South America, of various ages and physical abilities.

Our tour guide was a lot of fun. He made jokes, told us about the cenotes, and led us in the activities. But he also encouraged us. When someone was scared to do something, he was supportive. He told us that it was okay, and we could do it. But we also felt like it was OK to fail, if we really couldn’t. It really felt like his encouragement was literally creating courage.

What was really neat was that despite the language barrier, everyone else was also supportive and encouraging. Everyone cheered with encouragement before someone would attempt something difficult. And we’d cheer especially loud once someone accomplished something that was difficult for their abilities.

It was an awesome feeling to feel so supported. It made me feel like I was in a safe place, where I could try new things that were a little past my comfort zone. I was able to do the zip-line upside-down. I jumped off a 15-foot cliff into the water. I even jumped off the cliff a second time, even though I was a little scared.

Back at the resort, we played some volleyball in the pool. It was a similar situation, with players of varying ages and abilities. Again, we tried to help the weaker players feel comfortable so they could improve without feeling judged or self-conscious. It helped everyone have a good time. It made everything more fun to be in such a supportive environment, whether I was in a position as one of the more skilled (volleyball), or one of the less skilled (jumping or zip-lining into the water). We were all able to accomplish more, with less effort.

These experiences provide a good lesson that can be applied in a lot of places. Such a supportive environment would help any relationship, and any team. I’ve been on a couple really good software development teams, but I don’t think any of them have been as supportive as these two groups of strangers.

I’ve decided that this should be one of my goals as a team leader. I want to create an encouraging environment for the whole team. I want to make sure that everyone is comfortable enough that they feel like they can try things that are difficult, even if they might fail (as long as nobody gets hurt).

If a group of strangers can do this, so can your team. So can you and your significant others. We need to work every day to make sure that we’re supporting each other. It’s the best way to get everyone to achieve more.

The Ultimate Optimization

I got my first computer in 1984. It was a Commodore 64. I had to do extra chores and save up my allowance to buy it. I was 13.

Back then, Sears and other retail stores had Commodore 64 computers out on display. Whenever I went to the store, I’d write a short BASIC program and leave it running on the display computers:

10 PRINT "CRAIG IS GREAT!"
20 GOTO 10

Hey, I was a 13-year-old kid. Later, I got a little more sophisticated. I’d change the background color instead. I still remember the POKE address:

10 FOR I=0 TO 255
20 POKE 53281, I
30 NEXT I
40 GOTO 10
RUN

This was fast enough to change the background color every few scan lines, creating a flashing scrolling effect.

Later, I learned 6502 assembly language. I translated the BASIC program into assembler, and memorized the bytes to type in at the store. In assembly language, the background color would change several times per scan line. The effect was kind of psychedelic.

All that happened in the mid-1980s.

Fast-forward to about 2000 or so. I was telling the above story after a St. Louis LUG meeting. I explained how I had memorized the 10 or 12 bytes of machine code, and would leave the program running with its psychedelic effect.

After thinking about it for a bit, I thought that 10 or 12 bytes seemed too much. It actually bothered me — I couldn’t fall asleep when I got home. I got up and found my old 6502 manuals. I figured out how to write the code in 7 bytes. I installed the Vice C64 emulator on my Linux desktop, and tested my code. It worked as expected. (The emulator was already clock-cycle perfect by then.) Here’s the assembly code:

INX         ; $E8           ; 232
STX $D021   ; $8E $21 $D0   ; 142 33 208   ; $D021 = 53281
JMP $C000   ; $4C $00 $C0   ; 76 0 192     ; $C000 = 49152

Here’s the BASIC program to store that program in memory and run it:

10 FOR N=49152 TO 49152+6: READ Q : POKE N, Q : NEXT
20 DATA 232, 142, 33, 208, 76, 0, 192
30 SYS 49152
RUN

The moral of the story is that you can optimize even a 10-byte program, 15 years after the last time it was used. So don’t tell me that your program can’t be improved, no matter how small it is.

PS. I rewrote the code above while writing this article in 2015, about 15 years after the last time I rewrote it. And I again downloaded Vice to test it, this time on Mac OS X.